Catherine Christer Hennix Update

Photo by Laura Gianetti.

I wrote a profile of minimalist composer, philosopher and blues musician Catherine Christer Hennix for The Wire last year to coincide with the release of her masterwork from the 1970s, The Electric Harpsichord.  Hennix lives in Berlin these days, and has a band called  The Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage which played a series of shows this summer at the Grimmuseum.  The band features the amazing Amelia Cuni, to my mind the foremost practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal music outside of the south Asian diaspora, and a master of the most austere of classical vocal styles, dhrupad.  You can hear a twenty minute recording of Hennix et al on Soundcloud — the first time that anyone not living in Berlin has had a chance to hear these guys.  The most obvious comparison of course is the Theater of Eternal Music, especially in later days when La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela were using sine waves, and were joined by folks like Jon Hassell. But Cuni doesn’t “just” sustain a drone tone, she moves between notes in the style of an alap singer. And there’s something about the way the sound pulsates, in a way that’s almost monstrous, that’s peculiar to Hennix.  At times you can’t tell whether the sound is happening externally or actually inside your skull.  The sound seems to surge, but the surge is, well, mathematical, not in the sense of something cold or formal, but in the sense of an iteration that extends to infinity … you can somehow feel or maybe hear the matrix of tones beyond what’s actually audible.

Catherine Christer Hennix, Drones and the Changing Same

I’ve spent the last few weeks finishing a profile of Swedish mathematician/visual artist/composer Catherine Christer Hennix for The Wire, in honor of the recent release of her 35 year old sustained tone masterpiece The Electric Harpsichord.  The conversation spiraled off in many ways, from mathematical logic to quantum field theory to the Swedish jazz scene in the 1960s – take a look, it’ll be in the October issue.

It also got me thinking about drones some more, and why they can be such powerful audio experiences.  My general hunch is that it has to do with sameness, which is a topic I became fascinated with in writing In Praise of Copying.  Mostly we celebrate difference, diversity, novelty in our society. We associate sameness with fascist conformity, boredom, lack of imagination.  In some ways of course, there is a sameness to things today that is disturbing: we value diversity but all diversity today has to be channeled through the marketplace, and with globalization, an increasing uniformity of places, cultures, societies.  But maybe, as Alain Badiou says in his Ethics, the problem is finding the right kind of sameness.  I note that Jacques Derrida, in his original essay on “Differance” actually wrote that “we provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.”  Somehow, that sameness dropped out of the picture as post-structuralism developed, and differance became mere difference.  What did Derrida mean? Approaching this problem through Buddhist philosophy, I come to the notion of “nonduality” or, more clumsily but maybe more helpfully, “nonconceptual sameness”, meaning the nonexistence of concepts that allow for the elaboration of difference.

I think what some people find irritating about drone musics is their sameness, nonconceptual or otherwise.  But to me that irritation is a sign of resistance to what’s going on, because there’s always something new going on when you let yourself experience a drone fully.  La Monte Young argued that “tuning is a function of time” and that as you tune into the harmonics in a drone, you experience new aspects of it.  Your own relationship to that continuous sound changes because second by second you are changing, physically and cognitively.  At the same time though, when you relax into the sound, it can be ecstatic, and that is where I would locate the “nonconceptual sameness”.  You loosen up your own sense of yourself and something opens up.  Somehow, the drone lets you concentrate … on what? The sound? On your own psyche experiencing the sound? Both probably.  I think there’s a taste of the power of the drone in all copying, since a copy is a repetition, just as a drone is a repetition.  That’s really what I meant by “in praise of copying”.

The Electric Harpsichord is an uncanny piece. Henry Flynt wasn’t exaggerating when he called it “a revelation”.  I’ve listened to it a number of times over the last decade and I invariably have the disconcerting but elating experience of the ground beneath me melting about half way through the piece.  This is presumably what Hennix and Flynt meant when they coined the term HESE (“Hallucinogenic Ecstatic Sound Experience”) to describe works like EH in the late 1970s. When it was composed/performed, EH was part of a whole cluster of multidisciplinary efforts that Hennix was involved in ranging from visual art works to abstract Noh plays, to treatises on logic such as “17 Points on Intensional Logics for Intransitive Experiences, 1969-1979” and “Toposes and Adjoints”.  Aside from a remarkable journal issue Io #41 published in 1989 (subtitle: “Being = Space x Action”) this work was never published.   The Io issue is remarkable: it also features work by Hennix’s mathematical mentor Alexander Esenin-Volpin, a founder of the human rights movement in Russia as well as the mathematical school of ultra-intuitionism, a key essay by Flynt, work by poets George Quasha and Charles Stein, and a lucid introduction to Hennix’s work by Stein.

As a non-specialist in the outer regions of advanced mathematics, it’s hard to evaluate how solid the mathematical work is, and how directly it can be related to the soundworks that Hennix was producing.  Yet the argument, made by both Hennix and Flynt, that one could extract a method for producing ecstatic sound works that is based on a radically reworked philosophy that takes in and appropriates mathematical logic, amongst other things, remains an intriguing one.  Who even has that kind of ambition today?  The notion that a radically different science or set of scientific goals could or would emerge from a different set of values to those that our own societies are built around today could be a very powerful one, taking us beyond techno-fetishism of both the libertarian and Marxist kinds on the one hand, and Luddite attitudes on the other. A lot is asked of those who want to take this path … but is that such a bad thing?

Finally it comes down to the work, and, archivally, there’s not that much of it: EH was only performed once, though there are other unreleased recordings by Hennix from the 1970s. A number of Flynt’s HESE-related recordings, as is a duo recording with Hennix entitled “Dharma Warriors”.   On the other hand, Hennix is alive and well and living in Berlin, where she now has a band called the Chorasan Time-Court Mirage, featuring the marvellous Italian born dhrupad vocalist Amelia Cuni. A demo recording that I’ve listened to is pretty mesmerizing: a digitally produced drone, with Hilary Jeffery’s trombone and Hennix’s voice.  It’s trance inducing but not New Age at all!  Definitely a work in progress ….

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.

Henry Flynt: American Gothic

This was originally published in the October 2001 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Is it OK to talk about what we think about this civilization?” asks 61 year old hillbilly minimalist fiddler and philosopher Henry Flynt, in his broad southern accent, as we drink coffee in a restaurant in New York’s Soho, where he lives. “It’s the aftermath of a wreck. It’s just in a condition of destruction. I’m trying to think of a more polite word than putrefaction. Everything that is organic is dead and decomposing, and everything that’s not organic is twisted and fused.”
For forty years, to almost complete indifference, Flynt has waged his own multi-front struggle against this culture, a struggle which has encompassed everything from music, dance and painting, to “concept art”, a term which he coined in 1961, a broad range of philosophical treatises on everything from mathematics, to psychedelics, to utopian politics, and even an envisioned 1975 commune called the Genius Liberation Project.
After decades of gathering dust, some of his key musical works are finally available. A 2 CD set New American Ethnic Music Volume 1, issued earlier this year by Baltimore musician and impresario John Berndt on his Recorded Records, collects two of the extraordinary drone and violin HESE (Hallucinogenic Ecstatic Sound Environment) pieces he developed with, Swedish composer, musician and mathematician, Catherine Christer Hennix in the late 1970s. Then there’s the recent Ampersand release Graduation, a set of avant-country recordings from the late-1970s, in which he places country on an infinite plateau that constantly surprises, while remaining as American as a cross-country road trip. Awaiting release are unique overdubbed violin pieces from the 1960s, like “Hoedown”, and recordings of his blazing cosmic rockabilly and freeform psychedelic guitar and drum collaborations with Hennix under the name Dharma Warriors, made in the years before Flynt quit making music in 1984.
Asked whether he’s a recluse, Flynt responds: “not at all. In fact, how strange. I’ve been screaming for attention for 40 years. I have a long list of attempts to become a public figure. It just keeps failing over and over!”
A self-described nerd, Flynt grew up studying classical violin in North Carolina in the 1950s, surrounded by yet oblivious to the southern “ethnic” cultures of bluegrass, country and blues. He studied mathematics at Harvard, with a view to pursuing philosophy, while continuing his studies of New Music. A meeting with La Monte Young in New York in 1960 provided the blueprint for Flynt’s future musical direction. Young was at that time simultaneously pursuing his work in modern composition while playing ferocious saxophone and gospel based piano pieces. Inspired by Young and exposure to Indian classical music, Coltrane and the country blues, as well as his growing commitment to leftist politics (Flynt was a member of a Marxist group in the mid-sixties, and has continued to pursue a radical, utopian politics in his philosophical works), he began producing solo fiddle pieces that embody his revolt against the clinical modernism of Cage and Stockhausen (against whom he demonstrated in 1964 with fellow Harvard student Tony Conrad), and his allegiance to what he calls “new American Ethnic music.” This was the music of the south of his childhood whose traditions he reshaped according to his own vision of an ecstatic, trance-inducing sound, appropriating techniques from contemporary composition, to add to the armory of ethnic music.
Flynt is at pains to differentiate his music from the superficial borrowings of ethnic music that are pervasive in modern music: “You can’t just say well now I’m going to go to the dimestore, get some hillbilly software and throw some hillbilly into my minimalist modern music. For me that’s not what it’s about. Since it’s a different musical language, you have to acquire some chops! Just saying you’re a composer and a musician and producing a violin and a piece of paper doesn’t count for anything in that world of banjo pickers and fiddlers. What the pedal steel player is doing on my CD is sophisticated stuff!”
Setting aside his own formidable fiddling skills, Flynt acknowledges that finding other musicians with the requisite chops who were willing to follow his instructions was never easy though. For the 1975 Graduation sessions, Flynt recalls that he had to trick the musicians into doing what he wanted: “It was always a fluke. You’d bring them into this situation, almost blind, throw them into these open forms and ask them to start flying. What usually happened was that they managed to do it once. Afterwards, they shrugged their shoulders and walked away. One of them said that he had a great job lined up playing in a ski resort near Denver.”
Flynt is aware of the paradox that his music embodies: that of trying to play ethnic music for a community that is for the most part uninterested in his attempts to elevate or enrich it. He in turn says “I have no interest in entering their world and becoming a commercial musicians with their three minute songs. I’ve taken their music and ripped it apart at the seams to expand it, make it work in a different way.”
Flynt has also had his brushes with the rock world. In the mid-sixties, he took guitar lessons from Lou Reed and sat in on violin for John Cale with the Velvet Underground for four nights in 1966, during the Exploding Plastic Inevitable period. “I enjoyed the experience, but I was kind of out of place. We would get into long chaotic pieces, but Reed stopped me because my sound started getting too hillbilly. He actually punched me to get me to stop.”
Through the late sixties, he pursued an electric guitar driven, political rock format, while in January 1975, he formed Novabilly, a rock’n’roll band, who performed spirited versions of the Communist Internationale along with their own songs – an exhilarating fusion of rockabilly riffing, free jazz and hillbilly fiddling. He recalls trying to get gigs at the downtown New York punk mecca CBGB, whose initials stand for Country, Blue Grass and Blues. “Because of Graduation, I thought that if anybody had a right to play there I did, I mean those initials describe exactly what I do!” But the club thought otherwise and blew him off. Six months later, punk hit town and his musicians jumped ship, leaving him with a lasting suspicion of a “punk value system” which he considers pervasive.
In love with music, like Coltrane, Young or his teacher Pandit Pran Nath, which “aspires to a beauty which is ecstatic and perpetual”, Flynt dismisses “alternative culture” as for the most part “a mystique of self-disintegration, hollowness and dishonesty, coming forth from this inchoate rage at the so-called establishment. And this self-disintegration, in most cases is also a hoax, since most of these people, like Marilyn Manson or Smashing Pumpkins, are well organized hustlers. It’s very rare that someone like GG Allin or Cobain lives out the myth by actually destroying themselves. You do have the occasional suicide or overdose, but what is more normal is for them to become enormously wealthy, like Eminem! It’s the youth rebellion industry. This mystique of bottomless emptiness is clearly not real. I mean someone who actually was all those things would just melt in their tracks if they were infinitely hollow, alienated. It as if they want to keep falling through the rotten floors of illusion forever. They affirm that as a state!”
New American Ethnic Music is out on Recorded; Graduation and Other Ceremonies is on Ampersand. Flynt’s philosophical writings can be found at