On Appropriation

This essay was originally published in CR: The New Centennial Review in 2007. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“What if Appropriation – no one knows when or how – were to become an insight whose illuminating lightening flash enters into what is and what is taken to be? What if Appropriation, by its entry, were to remove everything that is in present being from its subjection to a commandeering order and bring it back into its own?”  Martin Heidegger, “The Way to Language” (133)

David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, first released in 1981, marks a key moment in the history of sound culture.  Recorded just prior to the advent of digital sampling, Byrne and Eno used edited and looped found, field and folk recordings, mostly of devotional singing and preaching from around the world, but also radio recordings, setting them to synthesized ethno-funk grooves. Spanning the dadaists use of found materials in their art, Duchamp’s famous urinal sculpture Fountain or his Mona Lisa appropriation L.H.O.O.Q, the modernist cutting and pasting practices of Eliot and Pound, the use of found sounds by Cage, the discovery of musique concrete by Pierre Schaffer, Burroughs and Gysin’s discovery of the cut-up as a technique for both writing and tape manipulation and the situationist practice of detournement, appropriation has a long and well known history in twentieth century western avant garde art, one which Byrne and Eno were keenly aware of when they made My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981.  Parallel to this tradition is an African diasporic tradition of appropriation, that we can trace from the mixing of breaks by hip-hop DJs like Grandmaster Flash in New York in the 1970s, through the use of collage and editing in Jamaican reggae (I am thinking for example of the cow sounds on Lee Perry’s “Cow Thief Skank”), back through various traditional practices, such as the “spiritualization of found and recycled objects placed in yards and upon the tomb as altar” which Robert Farris Thompson has described as being characteristic of the greater Afro-Atlantic World (181).  Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s 1953 novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, whose title Byrne and Eno also appropriated, apparently without having read the book, also has its place in this tradition. Written in English by a Christian Yoruba man, the book describes a series of acts of possession and dispossession that the narrator is subject to when he is driven out of his village by the wars of slavery.  The originality of Byrne and Eno’s Bush of Ghosts consists in bringing together these two traditions of appropriation in a new way, one that has profoundly influenced contemporary musical forms including hip-hop (Hank Shocklee, Public Enemy’s producer has cited it as a key moment in his musical education), drum and bass (Goldie sampled the record on Metalheadz’ genre-founding “Saint Angel”) and more.

What is appropriation?  The word has at least two contradictory but related meanings.  First of all, the sense in which it is used above, that of taking something and making or claiming it as one’s own, or using it as if it was one’s own.  Secondly, that which is proper to a situation or a person, that which is “appropriate”.  Appropriation, according to the first definition, often involves taking something which arguably belongs to someone else.  There is the sense of seizing, of making a claim on something that is claimed by someone else.  According to the second definition, it is that which one has a right to claim as one’s own, which is “properly” one’s own (we will set aside for now the question of where this right and claim come from). I began with a quote from Heidegger, from a lecture given in January 1959, 6 years after Tutuola’s book was published. Appropriation plays a highly significant role in Heidegger’s later work.  In his second, esoteric book, Contributions To Philosophy, written in 1936-8 with the subtitle title “Of Appropriation” and throughout the latter part of his career, Heidegger emphasized the significance of appropriation (an unusual translation of the word “Ereignis” but apparently one that Heidegger considered valid (1)), going so far as to claim in “The Way to Language” that it was “richer than any conceivable definition of Being” (129, footnote).

Heidegger uses the concept of appropriation in working through his critique of the Platonic doctrine of identity as essence.  Appropriation, in the sense of seizing something that belongs to others and making it one’s own, belongs to the tradition of metaphysics, since it posits that things have essences that belong to them, and at the same time that these things can be stolen from them.  The paradox of course is that if these things can be stolen, they can’t really be essences which would not be transferable.  For Heidegger, the process by which those things came to appear to have essences relied on an appropriation – in other words, that essence which appeared to belong to them was appropriated to them.  Thus, it is appropriation, rather than essence that is determinative of these things, although there is an ambiguity in the quote with which I began, since it is unclear whether, when things are removed from their subjection to the commandeering order (of metaphysics, science and so on), they will be “restored” to their own order, or to the order of appropriation itself.  What could “own” mean, if not an essence?  Indeed, where does “properness” come from if not essence?  In his late works, Heidegger spoke of “dwelling” as a kind of home that was properly one’s own, but nonetheless constructed, and of nearness or proximity as a measure of being, rather than essence.  Nevertheless, the question of how any sense of belonging can be constituted, phenomenologically or otherwise, remains unresolved in his work.

Tutuola’s remarkable text provides an interesting picture of what things would be or are like in a world constituted by acts and events of appropriation.  To list some of them, Tutuola is a Christian Yoruba man living in Lagos in the 1950s, writing in an English which has undergone considerable transformation.  His book begins with the narrator, a young boy, fleeing the wars of slavery (slavery being one of the most basic acts of appropriation imaginable) by heading out into the bush of ghosts.  In the bush of ghosts, he is passed from village to village, ghost to ghost, and transformed, possessed and used in a variety of ways.  The theme of eating and being eaten is crucial in the book – eating being of course another fundamental kind of appropriation and assimilation.  So is the theme of technology –in the variety of ways that the narrator becomes an object used instrumentally, as when “over a million “homeless-ghosts” … were listening to my cry as a radio.” (50) and the surprising presence of other techno-beings in the bush of ghosts – most famously “the television-handed ghostess”.  Where nothing has an essence, one is in a realm of constant transformation, appropriation, theft.  And yet the narrator is also able to insist on his proper form – proper perhaps as “that which is nearest to us”, to use a Heideggerian phrase, rather than that which IS us.  Tutuola’s text suggests the possibility of a comparative study of ways of modeling phenomena that we label appropriation.  Basic human ideas and phenomena such as embodiment, identity and property have of course been modeled in radically different ways by different cultures. These different models are highly relevant to contemporary discussions of copyright, intellectual property which are often built around uncritical framings of these terms.

In his 1957 text, Identity and Difference, Heidegger writes:

“The event of appropriation is that realm, vibrating within itself, through which man and Being reach each other in their nature, achieve their active nature by losing those qualities with which metaphysics has endowed them.  To think of appropriating as the event of appropriation means to contribute to this self-vibrating realm.” (37-8)

Without the endowments of metaphysics that appear to ground beings in essences, the universe appears as a flux of mutually co-constituting and interdependent appropriations, not dissimilar to that described by Tutuola.  “Properness” is given in the moment or event of the coming together of these vibrations.  But what does Heidegger refer to when he writes of this “self-vibrating realm”? Of course, it’s not clear.  The realms of light or sound?  The realm of pattern, tantra, interdependence, sunyatta of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism?  Following the rumor that Heidegger took LSD with Ernst Junger in the early 1950s, the realm of psychedelic experience?  Although Heidegger in fact pursued this thought in the direction of language, the vocabulary he uses is more specific to sound.  Thus in Identity and Difference, he writes that “in the event of appropriation vibrates the active nature of what speaks as language” (39, my italics). Avital Ronell has already investigated the importance of the “call” to Heidegger, and one might also examine “attunement” in Being and Time as a specifically sonic mode of apprehending being.  For now, let us observe that the sound world is indeed a “self-vibrating realm” and one in which appropriation is already quite familiar to most of us.

Music moves us, in doing so, it appropriates us.  It does this affectively – through “affection”.  What is called in our world today “appropriation” – the taking of something and making it ours, making it belong to us – operates in a fluid way in the realm of sound where the interaction of different sounds, which is called “harmony” or “rhythm” is manifestly a mutual appropriation.  The sound world requires us to think through the possibility of “appropriation” precisely in the Heideggerian sense of a “belonging together” which is not a unity.  The sound world “takes us out of ourselves” (ecstasis) and yet we experience that which takes us out of ourselves as part of ourselves, because we are emotionally affected, and we identify ourselves with our ability to “have” emotions. David Byrne struggles with this in his essay accompanying the reissue of Bush of Ghosts when he writes about an emotionally affective music that is composed through montage, that “tricks the emotions” because it is not a representation of an authentic performance.  But in the realm of sound, the affective power of sound is not the product of authentic expressions of particular subjectivities, despite the tradition of writing about music in the west that takes this point of view. This tradition would be the Platonic tradition that Heidegger is criticizing, in which identity is an essence that is revealed by an expression or representation.  A variety of non-western musical traditions around the world have developed rituals, practices and cultures built around this appropriative potential of sound.  Possession by deities and spirits is initiated through drums and percussion throughout the African-Atlantic diaspora, and the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia.  In Hindustani classical music, singers and musicians evoke the spirit of a raga by performing it, and a successful performance is measured by the appearance of the spirit, which is simultaneously a sound form, a picture, a color, a mood and a deity.  In all of these situations, no claim is made by the performers that the power of the music is the result of a particular personal subjectivity revealing itself.

As one of the first composers to break with the Platonic tradition in Western music, John Cage’s writings on sound offer us a way of thinking through sound and appropriation.  At first glance, there would appear to be no one more “against appropriation” than Cage. But it is precisely against the appropriations of sound made by the Western classical tradition that Cage writes.  In his stunning Juillard lecture (1952) he comments “I imagine that as contemporary music goes on changing in the way that I am changing it what will be done is to more and more completely liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more exactly to let them be physically, uniquely, themselves.  This means for me: knowing more and more not what I think a sound is, but what it actually is in all of its a-coustical details and then letting this sound exist, itself, changing in a changing sonorous environment.” (99-100) In other words, rather than appropriating sounds and forcing them to conform to an artificial set of ideas about what sound is, the composer sets up a situation where audience and composer can experience sound as being autonomous. “Silence surrounds many of the sounds so that they ex-ist in space unimpeded by one another and yet inter-penetrating one another” (100)  This would be the “self-vibrating realm” that I discussed earlier, where the interpenetration of sounds (and listeners) would constitute an open, unbounded mutual appropriation, where by taking a leap (participating in a performance of 4’ 33” for example), one “is appropriated” and enters into “the event of appropriation” and an encounter with “Being”.

There is some question whether, in working so hard to avoid an appropriation that posits sound as being composed of notated essences, Cage fully engages the autonomously appropriative qualities of sound.  “Chance procedures” are indeed a way of taking a leap into “the event of appropriation”, but is it the only or most a/effective way?  Is unstructured sound the only authentic way of experiencing Being sonically?  A whole diaspora of post-Cagean musical practices and strategies have evolved and been disseminated around the world that work in different ways with this problem.  The use of just intonation tuning systems by La Monte Young and others, based on the physics of sound suggests the possibility of a “true” metaphysics that emerges from a time-based tuning in to the universal structures modelled and constituted through natural harmonics.  Improvisation, as practiced by Derek Bailey and others, turns music making into an event whose meaning is immanent in the moment of collaborative or solo performance.  The use of chance procedures as the basis of collaborative improvisation by Cardew and Zorn, the use of error or found sound by Bryars or the glitch electronica of Oval and Kid 606 all arguably aim at triggering a Heideggerian event of appropriation, in and through sound.  A kind of secular mysticism emerges in both Heidegger’s work, and many of the musicians named above, one that is all the more powerful for its manifestation within an apparently non or a-cognitive zone.

If all musical experience involves and is constituted by appropriation, what do we make of music that involves what we might call the secondary, more literal appropriations of “other people’s sounds”?  This kind of appropriation involves either an imitation of a style or musical form (as with Doors cover bands or Elvis imitators, but also with genre or idiom based musics of all kinds), or the use of a technology of some kind to record sound and manipulate or represent it in some fashion.  With sound, there always exists the possibility of an imitation that appears identical to the original, as long as the source of the sound is not actively sought out.  This is the basis of the use of sound in hunting – the imitation of animal sounds by the voices of hunters.  Therefore, not all sonic appropriation is technological.  Although the technological appropriation of sound has been traced back to the use of bamboo slivers placed under temple doors which, when scraped across the floor produce a sound similar to a human voice (Davies), I will focus on the group of sound recording technologies developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, beginning in 1877 with Edison’s development of the tinfoil cylinder phonograph.  These technologies constituted a large leap in human ability to appropriate, imitate and manipulate sound.  Recording has a particular pathos in the world of sound because unlike visual images, text etc., sound is only present at the moment that it resonates in space, and is thus particularly time-bound.

The appropriations for which My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is known are of course technological, in that the record involves sounds which are copied and manipulated from other sources, using a variety of recording technologies.  Some tracks were recorded onto cassette from talk radio in New York and San Francisco (“America is Waiting”, “Mea Culpa”) or from Christian evangelist preachers (“Help Me Somebody”), others from a Folkways recording of a gospel choir from Georgia (“Moonlight in Glory”) and ethnographic recordings (details of Qu’ran?).  It is these appropriations that have been controversial.  Made before the advent of digital sampling, and the attendant licensing, copyright and intellectual property disputes that have come with our new abilities to appropriate and manipulate recordings of others, the clearance of samples that Byrne and Eno sought for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was apparently a novelty: “no one knew what the hell we were up to”. The disk has faced at least two challenges on the grounds of the inappropriate use of the samples. One for the Qu’ran track, which features recordings of Muslim preachers chanting from the Koran, which Eno and co. decided to leave off the recent reissue, after complaints from the Islamic Council of Great Britain (Enoweb). The other for the original version of “The Jezebel Spirit” which was entitled “Into the Spirit World” and featured a recording of Christian preacher Kathryn Kuhlman, but was blocked by her estate and then replaced by a recording of another preacher.

All technology, as Heidegger tells us, is a framing.  Within the framing, certain kinds of appropriation are possible, in that certain materials are taken, transformed and renamed.  Thus, the whole history of recorded sound constitutes a framing of sound and music, turning it into a kind of raw material that stands ready to be called forth and used by humans. It may be the case that the appropriation of human voices, as opposed to musical instruments, is particularly problematic, because voices are particularly unmediated sources of sound.  These voices have not only been copied, but also edited and manipulated, and they thus have the intense ambiguity around them that surround all montages.  Anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about the power of defacement as a way of negating and politicizing form (the montages of John Heartfield or Adbusters come to mind).  However, any sonic appropriation – meaning a sound taken and used outside of its “original” context – regardless of the intention behind the appropriation, might be considered a defacement if those who claim the ownership of the sounds object to the editing or recontextualization.  Montage is disrespectful of form.  What montage reveals is the inherent mutability of all forms.  As Taussig shows, the incendiary effects of montage reveals the politics of form, of what is appropriate, and the ways in which what is believed appropriate are enforced.  In other words, montage reveals the power structures that give to us the form of the appropriate and the inappropriate – and also the fragility, delicacy of particular forms.

A certain amount of guilt prevails around appropriation.  We would like to pay for our appropriations, and so we try to find someone to pay off.  Nor are such people usually hard to find.  And yet, if appropriation is ontologically inevitable, it is unclear that such payment is ever totally appropriate.  Perhaps our entire economic system serves to allow us to perform endlessly this ritual by which we seek to pay for what we think we have taken, or demand payment for what we feel has been taken from us.  One possible response to this situation is to give things away.  For example, the new edition of Bush of Ghosts comes with a website in which we can download samples of the original tracks of Bush of Ghosts for free.  The debt incurred by using other people’s work is paid for by freely giving away that which might otherwise be taken without permission.  Sometimes people have a right to control the uses to which their voice is put.  Sometimes they don’t.  Where does the sense of “our own” come from in music?  Heidegger speaks of the proper as a kind of law, but how do we come to know what is proper?  Is this a human rights issue?  Without a doubt, most of us would like to have some control over the uses that our words, our speech, our performances are put to.  And yet, much of the most vital music made in the last 25 years is based on a free circulation of sounds that is predicated on free access to recordings placed on the public record.

There is a power structure in evidence in all appropriation.  Certain voices, certain sounds are taken from their context, from their own names and placed in another context, an 8 track recording studio, another name, that of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Byrne and Eno.  Sometimes this is done with permission, sometimes not.  When done without getting permission, the links between the sonic appropriations of the avant garde and the long history of colonial appropriation become evident.  But the right to give permission can itself be seen as an appropriated right – and the practice of appropriation, as I have already shown, is a practice of many cultures around the world and throughout history.  In particular, folk cultures in the industrial age, as philosopher/musician Henry Flynt has observed, are often engaged in appropriating techniques from high or mass culture and “subordinating them” to their own purposes. Sometimes, the appropriation is mutual as with the collaboration of “Byrne” and “Eno”.  At other times, surely Byrne and Eno are themselves appropriated by the voices they have used. As Heidegger says in his writings on technology, the end of man’s placing nature within a technological enframing in which it is taken as a standing reserve is that the point is reached where man too must be taken as standing reserve, and technology is revealed as something other than man’s servant.  We see precisely this happening with music – indeed it is the reason why music holds such an enormously prestigious place in the world today.  Why?  Because we can see the way in which man is appropriated by technology through music, and we can experience a kind of ecstasis (Heidegger’s term) through the experience of this appropriation, which “calls” us too as we listen or dance.  The goofy video made for Talking Heads’ “Once In a Lifetime” from Remain In Light, released around the same time as Bush of Ghosts, features Byrne as a tweedy anthropologist, moving in a dishevelled but committed way to the rippling funk that surrounds him.

Some of Heidegger’s richest thinking about appropriation concerns a struggle between the different modes of appropriation found in contemporary society.  In particular, Heidegger is concerned with technology as a dominant mode of appropriation – and the quote with which I began posits a linguistic power as potentially being able to appropriate that which has been appropriated by technology.  In these terms, the technological appropriations that I have discussed on Bush of Ghosts are only one kind of appropriation.  The tension on many of the tracks on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is the tension between different modes of appropriation, different claims being made on the listener.  Most tracks use a highly repetitive funk sound, that asserts its effects corporeally, makes you want to dance etc.  Against this more or less pagan sound, with its links to the hedonistic dance cultures of the 1970s, these recordings of religious voices, trebley, lofi, affectively intense, work.  On “The Jezebel Spirit” the swirling gamelan funk that Byrne and Eno create appropriates in one direction, while the voice of the unidentified New York exorcist enacts the literal reappropriation of the mind of the woman possessed by “The Jezebel Spirit” in an other direction. The funk on “The Jezebel Spirit” intensifies into a swirling loop as the exorcism proceeds mimicking the struggling forces, and yet it does not resolve itself at the end of the track.  We are caught between different modes of appropriation – as perhaps we always are.

But these “other voices” call us into deeper engagement in and with the sound world, through the framing of technology.  I mean this as follows: sound, the sound of the human voice is a sacred force in most of the vocal samples Byrne and Eno use.  One could argue that these voices appear within the technological horizon, are framed by it, and by Byrne and Eno’s editing and direction.  Yet there’s another way in which it is the sound world, which has particular rules and powers, which appropriates technologies, editors and the like into it.  These appropriated voices actually stand in closest relation to that sound world and its powers, and maintain the most integrity in it.  Indeed they are propagated, radically extended by the forces of modernity and postmodernity which we know to be so crucial in the dissemination of African diasporic cultures in the twentieth century … and also perhaps more broadly in the dissemination of peasant or folk cultures worldwide.  The remarkable tension achieved on many of the tracks on Bush of Ghosts is the result of Byrne and Eno’s peculiar modulation of the different modes of appropriation that can manifest sonically.  At the beginning of this paper, Heidegger spoke of a moment where appropriation might come into its own.  Heidegger writes in a number of essays about the possibility that the appropriations of technology might themselves be appropriated in some way by a different kind of force.  Byrne and Eno’s Bush of Ghosts, emerging in New York at the same time as the radical mutations of the 12 inch discomix and Grandmaster Flash’s scratch mixes, revealed new powers of appropriation, which have become almost a dominant mode of making music in the age of Public Enemy, click and cut sound sampling and Moby’s Play with its blues and gospel archival appropriations.

Contemporary issues around copyright and intellectual property, whether related to downloading of digital music “copies” or the right of artists to sample the work of others and use it in their own work, issues which Byrne and Eno were among the first to confront with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, result from a growing confusion as to the nature of the appropriate.  As the evidence of the fundamental character of appropriation, revealed through technologies or otherwise, accumulates, a crisis as to our relation to the appropriate and the appropriable becomes ever more apparent.  Although Heidegger recognised this crisis, even in his late writings it has the character of something unknown.  And Byrne and Eno didn’t know either.  But this “not knowing” is not merely a general statement of confusion – Heidegger spoke of the event of appropriation, and the status of the event is that it opens up into the not known.  Our experiences of sound are precisely an example of such an event of appropriation.  We do not know what it is that moves us in music, and we do not know from where it is that music speaks or sings to us.  That which appears as sound in the sound world no longer belongs to the one who sung or played or composed it.  It has been appropriated to it.  Byrne and Eno can hardly be said to have discovered this, but we can say that they discovered for themselves that the nature of the “not known” event in which various unrelated sounds encounter one another is not “merely” that of randomness.  Appropriation is precisely that which takes up the random, the aleatory, the unconnected and chaotic and does something with it, places it in pattern or resonance.  Because in this sense appropriation underlies our very ability to make meaning of ourselves and the world that we find ourselves in, we should pause before endorsing the arguments of lobbyists for aggressive enforcement of copyright law – as well as those who argue for eliimination of such laws.  Something joyful and yet highly disturbing is revealed in the appropriations of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Slowly, inexorably, we are drawing closer to it.

Endnotes

(1) I have followed the conclusions of Richard Polt (2005, 2006), regarding the translation of “Ereignis” and “das Ereignis” as “appropriation” and “event of appropriation” (2006, 10).  This is also the word used by Stambaugh, in consultation with Heidegger, in translations of Heidegger’s later works such as Of Time and Being and Identity and Difference.

Works Cited

Byrne, David and Brian Eno.  2006 (1981).  My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Nonesuch CD.
Cage, John.  1969.  “Juillard Lecture” in A Year From Monday.  Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Davies, Hugh.  1996.  “A History of Sampling”. Organised Sound, vol. 1 (1), 3-11.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
“Enoweb, FAQ 2” on Enoweb, an unofficial web site devoted to Brian Eno’s music athttp://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/
Flynt, Henry.  2002 (1980).  “The Meaning of my Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” atwww.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/meaning_of_my_music.htm.
Heidegger, Martin. 1969.  Identity and Difference. Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  New York: Harper & Row.
1972.  On Time and Being. Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  New York: Harper and Row.
1982.  “The Way to Language” in On The Way To Language.  Trans. Peter Hertz.  New York: Harper & Row.
1993.  “The Question Concerning Technology” in Basic Writings.  Trans. William Lovitt.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
1999.  Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Polt, Richard.  2005.  “Ereignis” in Hubert Dreyfus and Mark Wrathall, eds. A Companion to Heidegger. Oxford: Blackwell.
2006.  The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy.  Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
Ronell, Avital.  1989. The Telephone Book: Technology–Schizophrenia–Electric Speech.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Taussig, Michael.  1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative.  Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1996.  “Afterword” to Recycled, Reseen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap by Charlotte Cerny.  New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Tutuola, Amos.  1994 (1953). The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  New York: Grove.

Philip Corner, Gamelan Son of Lion and “Gamelan in the New World”

These liner notes were originally published in the 2004 Locust Music CD re-issue of The Complete Gamelan in the New World. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

If you picked this cd up because of the title “Gamelan in the New World” with its suggestion of folkloric and ethnomusicological authenticity, expecting traditional Javanese or Balinese sounds, you will probably be in for a surprise when you encounter the joyous clattering of fluxus composer Philip Corner’s “Gamelan P.C” or Elena Cary’s “DNA”, in which the structural relationships between the four bases that compose the DNA strand are explored by being transposed to the gamelan. Although the gamelan had been an inspiration to generations of American composers, from Cowell, through Cage to Reich (and before them of course, back in the Old World, there was Debussy), the freedom with which these 1970s heads, high on the wondrous metallic resonances that the traditional Indonesian instruments make available, is eye and ear opening stuff. One of those chance encounters that irrevocably create a “New World” in the split-second before all the opposing forces of academe, orthodoxy and political correctness has the opportunity to stop it from happening. In 1972, ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary took a position in the music program at Livingston College, part of Rutgers University in New Jersey, whose faculty then included Philip Corner and electronics composer Daniel Goode. In 1974, at a summer program for the study of Asian culture, she met West Coast composer Lou Harrison, who, after extensive study in Indonesia, produced a number of works mixing gamelan with Western concert instruments. “Lou was very encouraging for us to produce works for the gamelan”, Benary recalls. “We used his own gamelan which was home made. Four or five of us who played on those instruments went on and found other Gamelans, one of whom was Dan Schmitt, with his Berkeley Gamelan, another one was called Gamelan Pacifica. They wrote and performed their own compositions.” Upon her return to the East Coast, Benary decided to build a Javanese gamelan, which beginners in the program could use as part of a study group, to gain hands-on experience in ethnic music. She built the gamelan, using directions written out by fellow former Wesleyan student Dennis Murphy, buying an 8 by 4 sheet of steel, and having it cut into strips for the keyboards, and building resonators out of discarded pet food and grapefruit juice cans. The Asian Music Performing Group at Livingston started using it, and Corner sat in with them. In 1975, when Benary was pregnant, the group joined and merged with Corner’s New Music Performing Group (her “Sleeping Braid” is “an accompaniment for Lyra Samara Silverstein, then six months old”). Benary had initially been against composing contemporary music for the gamelan, feeling that traditional instruments should be used for traditional music. “I just hadn’t heard anyone do it in a persuasive way,” she says. “With Phil, I didn’t think he was doing a disservice to traditional music, because what he was doing had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music. I know some people, like Steve Reich, were bothered though.” So the group began performing contemporary pieces written by various group members, and gave concerts at the school, at Princeton, and at lofts in New York. The name of the group, Gamelan Son of Lion, comes from translating Benary’s surname – which means Son of Lion in Hebrew. In 1976 or 1977 Benary was denied tenure at Livingston, and the gamelan was moved to Corner’s New York loft. Corner continued composing for gamelan until he moved to Italy in 1992, when the gamelan was moved to Goode’s loft – where Gamelan Son of Lion still rehearses and performs, incorporating wayang kulit shadow puppet shows to the music. While Harrison, and other American predecessors, such as Colin McPhee, who’d lived in Bali and written compositions for the gamelan, were careful to preserve relatively traditional structures in their work, Corner and colleagues approached the gamelan from a Cagean perspective, as a set of sound producing objects whose nature was to be explored, free of any pre-existing determining forms or structures. And yet, in the course of his encounter with the gamelan, Corner found his own composition methods changing rapidly: “I had been working for years with resonant metals and gongs, cymbals, meditative things,” he recalled recently. “There’s even a piece for audience participation called “Metal Meditations” that I did. So I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom. My first impulse was to take one of those pieces and transcribe it to gamelan. I immediately realized that was totally absurd. The nature of the gamelan is like having a keyboard with a scale of notes, and which note do I pick for repetitive cluster like sounds? On what basis do I limit it to some of the choices of the gamelan and end up with something that would actually sound better? So I decided that to go further I would have to accept what the gamelan gave which was essentially the scalar pattern.” Corner’s exploration of the gamelan’s pattern-creating abilities brought with it a reconciliation with a former enemy – numbers. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach, and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which the numbers always seemed to inhibit. But, in the fifties, there were also pieces where I explored pulses, or pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. But I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation.” Curiously, as Corner himself has noted, in using mathematical structures to organize the gamelan’s pattern making abilities, he ended up reproducing some of the structural underpinnings of Indonesian gamelan music. While much process-based composition can look and sound as dry and cold as those early personal computer program instructions that were circulating in the late 1970s, here was a metal-based musical form that thrived on numbers and processes without ever sounding machine-like (even when, on Dika Newlin’s “Machine Shop”, the piece is “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper-punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, N.J.). Metal has its own magic, and the gamelan instruments a life of their own, which emerges out of the resonant properties of metal, and the individual pieces of metal being tuned together as an inter-connected set. Corner explains: “The reality is the group, the instruments: the people come and go, the instruments stay the same, they’re matched and they go together. So you have the sense of joining something which already exists as a metaphysical phenomenon. Then, the physical aspect of it, sitting on the floor, taking your place before the instrument in an almost necessarily homageful posture. Relating to everyone in the way that the instruments are set up. Even when, as some people did, they did pieces from music with a music stand, it still had that feeling of being in it together, playing together, listening to each other and contributing to a whole.” In the accompanying sleevenotes, Corner and co. display a determined refusal to abandon their search for their own (“American”) relationships to these instruments. Although he has since had his works performed in Java and Bali, collaborated with Javanese masters, and invited Javanese groups to play in the U.S., Corner only visited Indonesia for the first time in 1986 (he also studied with Lou Harrison in 1982). While much of the West Coast based gamelan music affiliates itself with the idea of a pan-Pacific culture which it then becomes a legitimate part of, the more geographically distant Gamelan Son of Lion is defiantly rooted in the Cagean experimental tradition of the New York avant garde, and its search for the New and the Marvelous. In an interview made just before Corner’s first trip to Indonesia, he observed: “You can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.” The question as to Who We Are, or for that matter, what kind of a “New World” this is, remains open. As Benary says, many of the battles fought in the 1970s have been won, and the encounter of contemporary and traditional ethnic musics is an accepted part of the musical landscape, in the U.S. and Europe. Still, these CDs bear testimony to the possibility of a more radical encounter between traditional music, with all it’s accumulation of richness and detail, and the avant-garde’s raw apprehension of the sound universe in its totality. In Benary’s words: “Outside me musics are in categories, A flux of contradictions. But the flux which is my life is one thing Within me categories fade. The synthesis within is creation From here music is taken To return to the flux From which its pieces come.”

The Eternal Drone

This essay was originally published in Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music in 2003. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”

Walter Benjamin

Once upon a time, there were enormous halls, which could be found in many cities, where you could go and listen to the raw blast of Just Intonation tuned drone music every week, under a cascade of multi-colored lights. It was said by those who had visited these halls that this was the loudest sound in the world, and people crowded into these halls week after week, to be saturated in sound and light, and have ecstatic experiences. I am not talking about the lofts of downtown Manhattan where in the early 1960s, La Monte Young, John Cale, Tony Conrad and friends created the colossal drones of the Theater of Eternal Music, from which the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and most of what is best in late twentieth century Western culture issued forth. Nor am I talking about the communes and basements of West Germany and Switzerland in the 1970s, where Can, Amon Duul and Ashra Tempel and company took keyboard driven raga rock into interstellar overdrive. I am not even talking about the legendary drum and bass, techno and trance clubs that sprung up all over the world in the 1990s, wherever you could find a power socket or a generator, where synthesizer-created drones provided a trance-inducing bedrock for a Dionysian festival of percussive and pharmacological experiment.

There was no electricity in the cathedrals of medieval Europe, like Notre Dame in Paris, where enormous pedal organs tuned to specific harmonically related pitches accompanied drone or sustained tone based vocal recitations written by composers such as Leonin and Perotin, or the Gregorian chant masters. Operated pneumatically, using a bellows, the organs were vast, and the cathedral functioned as a resonant chamber that amplified the organ so that the space was saturated with rich overtones, as strange psychedelic color effects created by the stained glass windows illuminated the walls and the faces of the crowd. An English monk, Wulstan, described the newly built Winchester church organ in 960 AD: “Twice six bellows are ranged in a row, and fourteen lie below … worked by seventy strong men … the music of the pipes is heard throughout the town, and the flying fame thereof is gone out over the whole country.” “No one,” it was said, “was able to draw near and hear the sound, but that he had to stop with his hands his gaping ears.”

This was not the underground. This was at the very center of European culture – the DisneyWorld of its time. But with the growing use of the keyboard in the fourteenth century, and the gradual adoption of standardized tuning systems, such as the equal tempered scale which has dominated Western music from the eighteenth century until this day, the drone disappeared from view. Because the equal tempered scale is slightly out of tune from the point of view of the natural harmonics of sound (it “equalizes” the differences in pitch between notes on a keyboard to simplify and standardize tuning), the matrix of harmonies that makes the drone so pleasing when a Just Intonation tuning system (i.e. one using the natural harmonics of sound, and the laws that determine which pitches are in tune with each other) is used, is lost. The word drone became an insult, an indication of boredom, repetitiveness, lack of differentiation. What happened?

It’s true: drones remain boring, irritating even to many people. When Lou Reed issued his dronework homage to La Monte Young and Xenakis, Metal Machine Music in 1976, it was reviled by most of the unsuspecting fans who bought it expecting the catchy pop tunes of Transformer. If by drones we mean music that is built around a sustained tone or tones, there is something about a sound that does not shift, something about the experience of a sound heard for an extended duration that nags at consciousness, interrupts the pleasure it takes in the infinite variety of notes, combinations and changes. Or pulls it towards something more fundamental. Which is more important? That which changes, or that which stays the same? It need not be a question of either/or. In fact, it cannot be. We cannot block out the fact that we exist as finite beings within eternity or infinity – that’s how it is, whether we like it or not. But at least when it comes to man-made sounds, to music, there is no such thing as a music that remains the same for an infinite duration. Even La Monte Young’s extended tone pieces, such as his sinewave tone pieces from the 1960s like Drift Studies, or the current 8 year Dream House: Sound and Light installation started and will stop — although, Young has made the silences at the beginning and end of some of his compositions part of the piece, thus extending them into eternity, and sound’s “eternal return”. And if the music did not stop, we would stop, or change. We are changing as we listen, both physically, as the cells of our body grow, die and are replaced, and mentally, as our concentration shifts from one aspect of the sound we are listening to, to another, as our position in the room subtly shifts, resulting in different combinations of tones heard.

Beneath all that changes, is there a constant sound that is to be heard? Can we experience eternity right now, in sound? In India, one way of saying drone is “Nada Brahma” – “God is sound”, or “sound is God”. What we call music is ahata nad – “the struck sound”, but behind, inside this sound is anahata nad – “the unstruck sound”: the sound of silence. The relationship between the struck and the unstruck sound can be modeled in different ways. Indeed, at the moment when the drone re-emerged after World War 2 in America, with La Monte Young’s Trio for Strings (1958), we can see divergent but complementary models very clearly in John Cage and La Monte Young’s attitudes to sound. As Kyle Gann has written: “In Cage’s aesthetic, individual musical works are metaphorically excerpts from the cacophonous roar of all sounds heard or imagined. Young’s archetype, equally fundamental, attempts to make audible the opposite pole: the basic tone from which all possible sounds emanate as overtones. If Cage stood for Zen, multiplicity, and becoming, Young stands for yoga, singularity and being.”

Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952), with its “silent” non-performance at the piano forces the listener to become aware of the persistent omnipresence of sounds within silence and vice versa, both inside the listener and in the environment of the concert hall. Young’s Composition No. 7 (1960), which consists of a notated B and F# together with the instruction “to be held for a long time”, provides a single constant sound that changes as what Young has called “listening in the present tense” develops. Freed, at least temporarily, from the distraction of change and time, the listener enters the stream of the sound itself and discovers that what seemed to be a single drone sound shifts and changes as the listener scans and focuses on different parts of it, opening up into a universe of overtones, microtones and combination tones. Of course, this experience is entirely dependent on correct tuning. A B and a F# on a conventionally tuned piano won’t sound that amazing – nor will a drone that’s tuned this way. Young’s interest in sustained tones and Just Intonation, which he grew increasingly fascinated by in the early 1960s, support each other, because Just Intonation brings out the full spectrum of overtones which make drones so satisfying to the ear. This music may be “minimalist” in terms of instructions, but the resulting sound, as Terry Riley quipped is actually “maximal” – or, to use a word that Young says he once preferred, it’s “meta-music”.

Why has the drone become such a key part of the contemporary music scene, from Keiji Haino’s hurdy gurdy and fx pedaled guitars to the spiritualized pop of Madonna, the ecstatic jazz of Alice Coltrane or film soundtracks such as Ligeti’s for 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why do we want to be immersed in what David Toop has called the ocean of sound? Marshall McLuhan defined the electronic universe that opened up after World War 2 as being one of participation, immersion, acoustics, in contrast to the predominately visual culture that dominated the west for the last 500 years, which was a culture of spectators, distance and writing. Drones, embodying and manifesting universal principles of sound and vibration, in a fundamental sense belong to nobody, and invite a sense of shared participation, collective endeavor and experience that is very attractive to us. It is this aesthetic of participation that connects them with the punk scene. In 1976, Mark P. in Sniffing Glue drew a chart with 3 chords on it and said “now go out and form a band” – and within a couple of years, guitar bands like Wire, and its side projects like Dome had spiraled off from these chords into sustained-tone drone space. But today, even one of those chords might be too much sound. “If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars,” quipped Lester Bangs regarding Metal Machine Music.

Just as the drone can cause powerful shifts in individual consciousness, so it also re-organizes traditional hierarchies of music production and consumption. Drones are ill-suited to commercial recording formats such as the CD, due to their length, the way they rely on the acoustics of the room in which they’re produced, and the paradoxically intimate relationship with visual culture that they often have. The CD of Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire, with it’s warm resonant humming tone, is gorgeous, but it hardly captures the original sound installation from which the sound recording was made – just as no sound recording of La Monte Young’s work can capture Marian Zazeela’s complementary light sculptures, and no movie soundtrack recording can supply the experience of actually seeing the film it comes from.

The battle between Young, Zazeela, Cale and Conrad and over who “owns” the recordings of the Theater of Eternal Music rehearsals and performances embodies basic contradictions contained in the rediscovery of the drone in Western culture. Young discovered sustained tones in a sense that could be covered by traditional notions of authorship and copyright, but, as he himself once asked, how do you copyright a relationship between two pitches? Or for that matter the mathematical principles governing just intonation pitch relationships which Tony Conrad pointed out to Young in 1964? From the point of view of the performers, the creation of drones, even according to someone else’s instructions, feels like an intense collective experience and endeavor. Newer groups like Vibracathedral Orchestra, or Bardo Pond, or the Boredoms have returned to the tribal spirit of drone creation, in which drones are collectively improvised. Meanwhile, the profusion of electronic drone based musics, of microsound, lowercase, minimalist house, ambient etc. on labels like 12k, Mille Plateaux or raster extends this idea of community in a different way, as the line between producer and consumer is blurred by limited edition CDs and CD-Rs, which are mostly bought or exchanged by those who are part of the scene, and themselves making drone based music.

Drones are everywhere, in beehives, the ocean, the atom and the crowd. La Monte Young speaks of tuning tamburas to a 60 hz pitch, which is the speed at which electricity is delivered in the USA (in Europe it’s 50 hz). Unless we live totally off the grid, our lives are tuned to this sound pitch, like instruments. The word “vibration” has come to stand in for all that people find loathsome about hippy, New Age, California spiritual vagueness, but, as a series of dogmatic but useful books like Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Nada Brahma: The World is Sound and Peter Michael Hamel’s Through Music to the Self have documented, from the point of view of physics, everything vibrates and therefore can be said to exist as sound, rather than merely “having a sound”.

The word vibration entered sixties culture through Sufism, and in particular through the work of an Indian musician and philosopher Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan, who traveled to New York for the first time in 1910. In his classic book, The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word, Khan sets out a doctrine in which sound, movement and form emerge out of silence: “every motion that springs forth from this silent life is a vibration and a creator of vibrations.” It’s important to state this clearly: according to Khan, matter and solid objects are manifestations of the power of vibration and sound, and not vice versa. Sound comes first, not matter. So, the universe is sound, and the drone, which sustains a particular set of vibrations and sound frequencies in time, has a very close relationship to what we are, to our environment, and to the unseen world that sustains us. Khan: “With the music of the Absolute the bass, the undertone, is going on continuously; but on the surface beneath the various keys of all the instruments of nature’s music, the undertone is hidden and subdued. Every being with life comes to the surface hidden and subdued. Every being with life comes to the surface and again returns whence it came, as each note has its return to the ocean of sound. The undertone of this existence is the loudest and the softest, the highest and the lowest; it overwhelms all instruments of soft or loud, high or low tone, until all gradually merge in it; this undertone always is, and always will be.” The traditional name given to this never-ending undertone, which has been repeated by musicians from Coltrane and Can to Anti-Pop Consortium is OM, and by saying OM, the monk or the musician tunes into perfect sound forever.

Drones can embody the vastness of the ocean of sound, but they also provide a grid, or thread, through which it can be navigated. La Monte Young has talked about using his sustained tone pieces as a way of sustaining or producing a particular mood by stimulating the nervous system continually with a specific set of sound vibrations – thus providing a constant from which the mind can move, back and forth. In a recent interview, one of Pandit Pran Nath’s disciples, Indian devotional singer Sri Karunamayee pointed out that the tambura, the four stringed drone instrument that accompanies most Indian classical music performances “gives you a feeling of groundedness, so you do not get lost as in Western music. It is said that even Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning and music, when she enters the Nada Brahma, the ocean of sound, feels that it is so impenetrable, so profound, and is concerned less she, the goddess of music may be lost, inundated by it. So she places two gourds around her, in the form of Veena, and then she is guided by them into it.” Indian singers love to say that to be between two tamburas is heaven. They mean it literally, for the correctly tuned and amplified tambura contains a world of infinite pitch relationships. And to be perfectly in tune with universal vibration means to be one with God.

Do we have to believe in the drone’s spiritual qualities in order to experience them? The answer is no. Although in the Christian world, the sacred is thought of primarily as a matter of faith and belief, there is another view of the sacred that is concerned with practice, and the use of sacred technologies. Although the drone has often been used as a sacred technology, both in the East and the West, there is nothing that says it has to be so. Indeed, like all former sacred technologies in the modern era, including drugs, dance and ritual, erotic play or asceticism, musicians have appropriated and reconfigured the drone’s power in many ways that question traditional notions of the sacred. It has been said repeatedly that drones are, in the words of a Spacemen 3 record for “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.” The Theater of Eternal Music were famous for their use of hashish and other substances, which allowed for extended periods of concentration and sensitization to micro-intervals. The Velvet Underground made explicit this link, with Cale’s droning viola underpinning Reed’s vocal on “Heroin”. More recently, Coil, in their Time Machines, have produced a series of long drone pieces, each named after one of the psychedelics. Conversely, writers like René Daumal who have described their drug experiences, have reported experiencing their own identities as sustained tones.

In fact the drone is a perfect vehicle for expressing alienation from conventional notions of the sacred – either existentially, through a cultivation of “darkness”, as Keiji Haino, dressed in black, with his hurdy gurdy and fx pedals, has done; or through a music that emphasizes mechanism and dissonance in imitation of the drone of the machinery of industrial society (hence “industrial music” and Throbbing Gristle’s early work in alienated sound). In his essay on Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Lester Bangs dwelled on the “utterly inhuman” quality of Reed’s drone, and what he saw as Reed’s deliberate attempt at negating the human for “metal” and “machines”, and of the masochistic pleasure that he and other noise lovers took in the experience of depersonalization and subjugation to the sounds of machinery. Both of these kinds of alienation are present in the dark, negative, profane spirituality that we find in various recent mutant drone subgenres: dronecore, dark ambient, “isolationist”, with their moody horror film sound.

From the modern viewpoint, drones are effective because of their relationship to the void that existentialists believe surrounds human activity. In 1927 Georges Bataille spoke of the universe as “formless”, and all of “official” human culture as an attempt to resist this fundamental fact, which reduced the cosmos to nothing more than “a spider or a gob of spit.” There is something of this quality of formlessness at work in “dark” drones, with their dissonant tones, the endless decay, distortion and degradation of pure tones, in the name of entropic noise. This formlessness, which blurs and loosens the boundaries of individual identity, could be the source of the ecstatic, “high” quality that often comes with drone music. If we take away Bataille’s existential pessimism, we can see how the formlessness of the drone leads us to use words like “abstract” or “ambient” to describe it. Indeed, the word “drone” itself is used by reviewers and musicians alike to stand in for a whole realm of musical activity that is difficult to describe using words, because drones lack the series of contrasts and shifts that give music form or definition. But does that mean that drones are truly formless, or do they embody deeper aspects of musical form?

It would be easy to say that the sacred spiritual qualities of the drone were connected with harmony, and the consonance of different pitches – thus the saccharine sweetness of New Age music with its crude harmonies – and that the profane, modern drone is connected with dissonance, with the exploration and equalization of forbidden pitch relationships. But the Just Intonation system actually moves beyond such crude distinctions. To begin with, it should be pointed out that the equal tempered scale is itself slightly out of tune, i.e. dissonant, while certain pitch combinations that are in fact in tune according to the physics of sound will sound dissonant or “flat” at first to ears that have heard nothing but music in equal temperament. Just as there is a black magic and a white magic, so there are harmonious combinations of pitches that create all kinds of moods. Think of the diversity of ragas, all of which are tuned according to just intonation scales, from the sweetness of a spring raga like Lalit to a dark, moody raga like Malkauns. There are dark harmonies as well as light ones.

In fact, the feedback which is so key to alt rock’s embrace of the drone (My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realize” and Jesus and Mary Chain’s music for example), based as it is on the amplification of the resonant frequencies from a sound source, is by definition in harmony – the feedback being composed of naturally occurring overtones within a sound. What we call noise is often merely a different kind of harmony, and the celebration of it in post-Velvets guitar culture is a celebration of harmony. That’s why it feels so good. It’s the raw power of vibrations. Keiji Haino has talked of his desire, when he does “covers” of pop songs in his Aihiyo project, to “destroy things that already existed” and to liberate sound from the “constraint” of the song. But his noise-scapes can never truly destroy song, for the pleasures of song and noise enjoy secret common ground. Haino may replace banale clichéd sound relationships with powerful fundamental ones — but these are already actually contained inside many pop songs, waiting to be liberated by amplification, by being sustained over time. When it’s at its most satisfying, noise, like pop, embodies the laws of harmony, and universal sound.

Depersonalization, alienation, spiritual kitsch, immersive sacred sound: how do we reconcile the different uses to which drones can be put? I don’t believe, as Hamel and Berendt do, that anything good can come from lecturing people that they’re bad boys and girls who should eat their spiritual spinach. I don’t believe that theory should control practice and bully it with claims of expertise either. It was Cage and the minimalists (or Louis Armstrong maybe) that finally dispatched that notion after centuries of the composer’s hegemony. We know very well by now that expertise in music is a matter of coming up with the goods. Indeed, drones have always been as much a part of folk music as sacred or “classical” music – think of the bagpipes or the many stringed instruments that have a drone string. But in this respect, the lack of understanding of what sound is that informs much of the contemporary drone scene is revealing. A new piece of software is developed, a new synth, a new trick with an fx pedal, which sounds great for a few months, is quickly passed around and imitated, and then exhausted. Nothing is learnt, just the iteration of possible combinations surrounding happy accidents, and momentary pulses of novelty. In contrast, the drone school surrounding Young, which is notable for Young’s emphasis on setting the highest possible motivation and goals, and for the depth of the scientific and musicological research that it is based on, has been endlessly productive, both in the case of Young himself, and those who’ve studied with or around him (Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Jon Hassell, Rhys Chatham, Arnold Dreyblatt, Michael Harrison, Henry Flynt, Catherine Christer Hennix, and at a secondary level, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen Three etc.) – precisely because it does not rely on happy accidents, but on a knowledge of the powers of sound.

In his notes to Young-protégé Catherine Christer Hennix’s newly issued just intonation drone masterpiece, The Electric Harpsichord, Henry Flynt says: “The thrust of modern technology was to transfer the human act to the machine, to eliminate the human in favor of the machine, to study phenomena contrived to be independent of how humans perceived them. In contrast, the culture of tuning which Young transmitted by example to his acolytes let conscious discernment of an external process define the phenomenon. The next step is to seek the laws of conscious discernment or recognition of the process. And the next step is to invent a system driven by improvisation monitored by conscious apperception of the process.” In other words: don’t just let the machines run. And don’t hide behind Cage’s culture of the accident, of chance. Become conscious of what music can be, dive deeper into that vast field of sonic relationships that, at least in the west, remains almost totally unexplored.

The drone, like drugs or eroticism, cannot be easily assimilated to one side of the divide by which modernism or the avant-garde has tried to separate itself from the world of tradition. Like the psychedelics, the drone, rising out of the very heart of the modern, and its world of machines, mathematics, chemistry and so on, beckons us neither forward nor backward, but sideways, into an open field of activity that is always in dialogue with “archaic” or traditional cultures. This is an open field of shared goals and a multiplicity of experimental techniques, rather than the assumed superiority of the musicologist or the naïve poaching of the sampler posse. How vast is this field? I recently asked Hennix what the ratio of the known to the unknown is, when it comes to exploring the musical worlds contained in different just intonation based tuning systems. She laughed and said “oh, it’s about one to infinity!”

Thanks to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Sri Karunamayee, Henry Flynt and Catherine Christer Hennix for their help in writing this article.

Dark Angels

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“Paris changes! but my melancholy

Has not changed at all! New palaces, scaffolds,

Bricks, old suburbs, it all becomes allegory to me.” – Charles Baudelaire, “The Swan”

In July 2001 I sat with a musician in a café in Soho in Lower Manhattan, who I was interviewing for a magazine.  Having gotten over pleasantries, my interviewee, a long time inhabitant of the city, expressed his total alienation from what Manhattan, and presumably the rest of America had become.  He talked of how he felt that everything in American culture had become twisted, distorted beyond recognition, and that this was a culture in a state of hopeless decline.  I agreed with him.  Both of us felt like ghosts, hungry ones no doubt, wandering through the paradise of designer clothing stores and retail delights that now fill a neighborhood that in the 1960s and 1970s was the incubator of some of the most beautiful art, music, poetry that the world has ever known.  We were ghosts, yes, but still had access to these haunts and our feelings of disaffection were in a sense untenable, since we both enjoyed the good fortune to be able to enjoy the city on that warm summer afternoon at our leisure.  Two months later, the dust from the twisted, distorted metal framework, and the bodies and machines that inhabited it about a half mile down the road from where we sat, might have floated through the open doors of the café and settled on top of our cappuccinos.

I am very much aware that hindsight is 20/20 vision, but the fact remains that many people living in New York were angry about what happened to the city in the 1980s and 1990s.  Figuring out the contradictions involved in that anger, an anger born of our love for the city, is what this article is about.  Presumably, ever since there was a bohemian subculture in Manhattan, there were people who angry about what was happening to the city; bohemia is about doomed utopias, disenchantment.  I’m talking about a much more specific feeling, probably born from being immersed in the world of people with AIDS for most of the 1990s, and experiencing the discontinuity between their experience of life (especially before the protease inhibitors came along) and the Friends/Seinfeld world blossoming all around me.  I’m a natural born pessimist, so I believed that this world could not last.  But it carried on.  I believed that something was going to happen, had to happen, but it carried on.  Like everyone else, I was shocked by September 11 when it happened.  I had fantasized about some slow grinding recession or depression which would make all the Starbucks and Rite Aid branches go bust, that would drive “the yuppies” away and allow me to rent a cheap apartment in the East Village.  Or maybe some kind of Y2K apocalypse.  But despite the bursting of the stock market bubble, it didn’t happen.  Stranger still, even after September 11, everything still continues, although in a queasy, jittery way.  Is this a sign of the plucky resilience of ordinary New Yorkers, or a sign of a terminal inability to face a situation that is out of control?  Or both?

At one point during the late 1990s, I started writing a new version of Lord of the Rings, in which Mordor was Manhattan, the East River the Great River, and Brooklyn the Shire.  I wanted to capture the impotence of those of us with little money, and little interest in making any, in controlling what happened to the city that we lived in.  Thinking of those lines from Benjamin about the storm of progress heaping up its wreckage, which The Mekons quoted on “Sorceror”, I conceived Guiliani as a new Lord of the Rings, able to make and remake Manhattan at will, shifting around vast sums of money, reshaping the skyline and the street level of all the streets that I love, mocking the poor of the city, harrassing artists, eradicating all signs of the genuine street life of the city in favor of a suburban shopping mall imposed on everyone with brute force.

Of course, it was not entirely money that has reshaped our skyline in Sept. 2001, although Osama bin Laden did make his fortune in construction.  After September 11, I walked around the streets of New York, and it was incredibly hard for me to understand how some of the plane hijackers must have passed through those same streets, seen the incredible of explosion of cultures and peoples there, and were indifferent enough to them that they could want to destroy them. I guess what they were really interested in was the towers. The people in them, the people living on the streets around them were dispensable. Hmmmm. Sounds familiar. How could they not see that it means nothing to destroy a tower – that the wreckage, the frame-work is quickly carried away, the power structure that built the towers continues, in fact is invigorated by the damage, and the suffering that remains is felt by families who have lost someone. That’s all.

Yes, it’s amazing that someone out there in the world apparently regarded Manhattan as Mordor and hated it enough to want to destroy it.  Equally amazing that after 0911, The Lord of the Rings film, which was already in production when the disaster happened, could still be brought out, and become the box office smash that it has.  Just as Star Wars was to Reagan’s 1980s, so Lord of the Rings is to Bush’s 2000s.  But while the evil Empire and Communism were easily equated, who exactly is our Mordor?  Milton’s Satan says that “I myself am Hell!”  So maybe this time we are Mordor?  If Brooklyn is the Shire, it’s only because Manhattan is the visible symbol of American power and across the East River, the rest of the world, a dull sprawl of gas stations and mini-malls begins.  Not that that made any difference to those who drove planes into the twin towers, killing many people from the Shire.  The metaphor breaks down, doesn’t it?  Am I a part of The Shire or Mordor?  Both, really.  Better still, am I a hobbit … or an orc?  Another idea for a book I had was to retell the Lord of the Rings from the point of view of an orc, Good Soldier Schweyk style.  This orc would be lazy, totally uncommitted to Sauron’s plans for world domination, indifferent to elves, dwarves, hobbits, other orcs or Black Riders. I am not saying I admire this orc. I am saying such orcs exist.

The problem with the marketing of Tolkien’s conceit is that it was rabidly anti-industrial revolution, anti-modern state.  The world of technology, the military industrial complex is the world of Mordor.  Sure, maybe Tolkien was talking about fascism.  But Saruman’s glass ball, Sauron’s evil eye are techno-scientific wonders of the kind that dominate American culture at the millennium, just as the Black Riders on their monstrous horses, represent the fearsome powers of American military technology, such as those drone planes that recently smoked a group of Al Qaeda people driving down the highway in the Yemen, totally unaware (I presume) that they were about to be struck by a missile from an unseen drone plane and reduced to instant ashes.  Is it clear what I’m saying?  The narrative of the Lord of the Rings is to some degree the same narrative that the modern world hating Al Qaeda view the world from.  In a different way from Al Qaeda, who I abhor, it is a narrative that many of us in the counterculture view the world from too – however much our lives, immersed in technology such as the laptop on which I am writing this, contradict this feeling.  It’s a narrative that many Americans presumably identify with – since it’s endlessly marketed to us by Hollywood in movies like Independence Day.  Even the makers of the movie The Two Towers seem confused about whether a tower is a good or a bad thing.  In Tolkien’s book, The Two Towers are Isengard, home of Saruman, a formerly noble place, now mysteriously turned evil,  and the noble tower of Gondor, Minas Tirith.  They represent a balance, a polarity of good and evil power – a polarity maintained throughout the trilogy. In the movie, somehow, the tower of Gondor has all but disappeared, and the two most visible “towers” are now the evil Isengard (which moreover appears to have always been evil) and Sauron’s towering Mount Doom.  As though it was impossible to imagine a “good” tower any more – or maybe a tower not associated with trauma.  Note that the winning design for the restored World Trade Center contains nothing that resembles a tower.  Are all towers now to be shunned?

The cover of the new Rhys Chatham compilation on Table of the Elements suggests an answer.  It’s a photo taken by Robert Longo of one of the ornate top stories of one of those turn of the century warehouse type buildings in Soho, with ornate mock classical decorations around the windows and the flat roof.  Or for all I know, it’s one of those buildings that fringe Central Park, which are beautiful too.  The photo is taken so that this single building appears to be reaching up to the sun.  It looks imperial, but fragile too.  It’s the kind of building that Frank O’Hara would have called beautiful in a poem in a way that everyone would understand, but whose beauty now, in retrospect, appears to be at least in part connected to its imperial status.  For decades, the rest of America despised New York, and so the gesture of saying that the Chrysler Building is beautiful, which I, and Frank O’Hara, and millions of others, have made, made some kind of sense.  New York’s beauty was something fierce, something that needed to be affirmed.  Somehow it was something that could be affirmed even by those who couldn’t afford to live there.  I can’t claim that I never thought about the imperial nature of the city – it was the architecture, its sublimity, that first struck me when I visited the city in 1982.  That and hiphop, graffiti.  Somehow the combination of the two even: this vast sublime architecture, the expression of imperial power, and the wildness of the street, the subway, so opposed to one another, yet somehow inhabiting the same space.  To what degree does the roar of sheer electric exuberance that comes from the great artifacts of downtown Manhattan’s cultural heyday (early Bob Dylan, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, the Velvet Underground, abstract expressionism, Martin Scorsese’s films, beat poetry, punk rock and nowave, hiphop, even Chatham’s noise minimalism) come from the power of those towers?

And what went wrong, so that the culture that Chatham, Charlemagne Palestine and so many others were a part of disappeared, moved to Europe, or migrated to the internet?  Finally, to what degree did that wall of noise, the roar of art, even the sleaze of the old Times Square somehow protect all these towers of industry?  The full title of Chatham’s compilation is An Angel Moves Too Fast To See.  Is it possible that all those dark angels that fill Scorsese and Abel Ferrara’s New York films were driven away by Giuliani in the 1990s?  It’s an absurd thought, completely unprovable in every sense.  But it points to another side of the Magical Politics that several people in this issue discuss.  The world of magical politics, in Mick Taussig’s expression, is the murky realm of manipulation of the “power of the souls of the violently killed, the unquiet dead ranging over continental drift …  this magical universe of warring spirits, metamorphoses, illusions, confusions and secrecy.”  In terms of New York, that would be the streets, that murk and chaos out of which, as Rem Koolhaas described in his book Delirious New York, the pristine power of those towers arose.  Koolhaas thought that it was New York’s grid, and the austerity of the architecture that led to the chaos going on in the streets, and in the lofts where monstrous erotic, aesthetic carnivals played themselves out.  But what if it was the other way around?  That all that chaos, the violence and exuberance of the streets, the drugs, the discos, the art, poetry and music being cooked up around the city, everything that Giuliani despised about the city, was actually what sustained the towers? And that when Giuliani successfully “cleaned up the city” in the 1990s, drove out most of the remaining artists, got rid of the sleaze of the old Times Square and made everyone behave like they were in Switzerland, he actually destroyed a delicate balance that protected the city, a balance between the cool, sleak, hard, straight lines of the towers, and the turbulence murk and darkness that constitutes city life. The new sanitized city became out of balance, the angels that protected it fled, and it became vulnerable to attack.

Why did Rome fall?  Why did Paris cease to be the center of modern art around World War II?  These are obviously very complex questions.  I want to point to a way of thinking about these questions that I haven’t seen discussed, that’s all.  I don’t know that I believe in angels.  I do believe, like Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who quit New York for Toronto in the 1960s, that cities thrive or die according to the richness of the people and cultures who inhabit them.  There is a profane magic to the anarchy of great cities that is not a matter of metaphor.  This magic does not belong to the Giulianis of this world, however much they like to flatter themselves that it does.  It’s turbulent, murky, out of control, offensive and scary.  It was also an important part of what I love about New York, and in a strange way I did feel protected by it.  A sanitized city is not necessarily a safe one.  I think Jacobs left the city way too early.  I hope it’s still not too late.