I have a new piece about sonic borders and boundaries in the excellent sound studies blog Sounding Out!, which is edited by my friend and colleague Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman. As with a lot of my recent work about “the politics of vibration”, in this piece I try to think about what happens on a dancefloor in ontological terms and what it means to be able to access moments of ontological depth through bass, drums, speakers, partying bodies. I look at the current revival of ballroom/voguing styles by artists like the fantastic Zebra Katz, and the way that some of the most interesting new hip-hop explores a strange. maybe speculative zone between Eros and violence on the one hand, and immersion in vibration on the other.
I have a new piece about sonic borders and boundaries in the excellent sound studies blog Sounding Out!, which is edited by my friend and colleague Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman. As with a lot of my recent work about “the politics of vibration”, in this piece I try to think about what happens on a dancefloor in ontological terms and what it means to be able to access moments of ontological depth through bass, drums, speakers, partying bodies. I look at the current revival of ballroom/voguing styles by artists like the fantastic Zebra Katz, and the way that some of the most interesting new hip-hop explores a strange. maybe speculative zone between Eros and violence on the one hand, and immersion in vibration on the other.
I’ve been interested in drone-based music for a while and have written various pieces about it, including this overview that was originally published in a book edited by The Wire . Recently, Boing Boing asked me to write a guide to drone, so here it is. I’ve tried to cover recent mutations of drone such as the post-hiphop drone pop sound of Tri Angle Records, and the drone metal of Earth and Sun O))). Writing the piece also got me interested in drones in nature, cosmic drone vibrations such as the “sounds” that a black hole emits, and drone apps such as the marvelous SrutiBox and Droneo.
The latest issue of The Wire has an excellent section on bass in contemporary music and theory, which includes two pieces from me, one on UK soundsystem Aba-Shanti and their heavy vibrations, the other on the deepest bass sound in the universe, emitted from a black hole. I also suggested a piece on the humming sounds of Putumayo shamanism, as described by my friend and teacher Michael Taussig, and the following piece about plumbing sonic mental depths, as described by another teacher of mine, Sri Karunamayee:
“In an interview conducted in Delhi in 2001, the Indian singer and philosopher Karunamayee, a long term student of Hindustani raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, teacher of La Monte Young, Terry Riley and many others, explained to me how she first learnt to sing: “At the age of six, good teachers were coming and teaching my brother and sister. But I was very small and it was not considered necessary for me. But I had a gift. Whenever I heard some music it just became ingrained in me. My consciousness of silence kept my slate very clean. Most of the time I enjoyed the silence, even when everyone was talking, I felt a kind of echo of the silence, as if I was in a tunnel, untouched by any of it. Whatever I heard was imprinted, and I found myself singing in that way. Nobody cared. I would just put my head down and start going sa-re-ga-ma. Sometimes I would hear my sound very clearly. I would think: it may be that my sound is not heard, but I can think of music! And holding that thread, not of the sound that I’m making, but of the concept of sound, with that I would go up the scales for many octaves. And then I would say, alright, let me come down, keeping the thread, and I would find my voice becoming audible, very clear, and then deep, and then less clear, more unheard, but I could go deep also. This was my favorite exercise. I would go higher and higher like the birds at noontime in the sky. Then I would imagine that somebody is taking water out of a well. You can go as deep as you want. There is no limit on either side, up or down. So I experienced infinity in height and depth through sound and silence. It gives you control over your mind. A thread of sound. “
I finally got to write about my love for South African house music in the current (January 2011) issue of The Wire. I’ve been asked to write an “epiphany” piece for The Wire for nearly a decade but I’ve always loathed the word “epiphany” so I was never able to do it. Hearing the roar of the vuvuzelas at the World Cup earlier this year got me thinking about drones as a global, popular phenomenon, and in particular about my favorite South African house track of the last year, JR’s “Show Dem (Make the Circle Bigger)” with its spluttering vuvuzela-like bass sound:
I’m fascinated by the rise of house (sometimes known as kwaito) in South Africa in the post-apartheid years, and the global spread of a highly local queer black sound coming out of Chicago and New York in the 1980s. Rob of Wack Magic was telling me the other night that they struggle with the indie kids’ resistance to four on the floor beats like house, but house seems to be able to renew itself in so many different ways and contexts, and there’s a thread of liberation that runs through many of the forms it takes. An excerpt from my piece:
“What was it really that we were hearing when we listened to the vuvuzelas? I came to think of it, perhaps naively, as the sound of the global South, the buzzing hive sound of the people of the world, contaminating the otherwise clean hyperspace of the globalized spectacle of soccer, now trademarked and sold to us by FIFA. A reminder that you can’t send a message without distortion entering in, and that if you listen to the messages of global capital, they will always be accompanied by their subaltern support, the global multitude. Just as I love the way that drones piss people off, I loved the appalled reaction of many commentators to the vuvuzelas, and the calls for these trumpets and the drones they created to be banned.”
A heavy synthesizer drone fills the air, like something out of early Tangerine Dream. For a moment I can’t believe I’m actually hearing it. I’m standing in the bookstore at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. An elephant at the temple next door is giving blessings with his trunk. There is music in ashrams of course – devotional singing in groups, bhajans, chants – but this is different, the music unfolds slowly, some strange kind of fusion of Debussy, prog rock and raga, powerful and heavy. I ask one of the staff who it is and I’m told that it’s by Sunil, a former scientist who lived in the ashram for decades and began composing keyboard and later synthesizer music at the encouragement of one of the ashram’s two founders, The Mother, partner of the ashram’s namesake, Bengali poet, mystic and nationalist hero Sri Aurobindo. Sunil composed music in honor of the New Year each year from 1959 to 1998, and also set many hours of Aurobindo’s remarkable epic poem Savitri to music. I ask where I can buy the music but no one knows. They just call the music “ashram music”. I’m told that maybe someone at another office can burn me some mp3s, but nothing is for sale.
Although the ashram itself has proved itself adapt at running guest and publishing houses and a variety of other businesses which sustain the community, Sunil’s music was made as an act of devotion, and outside the visionary community founded by Aurobindo and the Mother it is almost unknown. It’s a remarkable story, but not unique. There is Alice Coltrane’s retreat from the jazz scene and commercial recordings to a California ashram where she sang and played, occasionally issuing cassettes of devotional music under the name of Swamini Turiyasangitananda that were available only at the ashram. Or Oliver Messiaen, who played the church organ at services at La Trinité in Paris from 1931 to his death in 1992. And this was not Messiaen’s only work outside of the conventional space of the concert hall. His famous “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed in the Stalag VIII-A concentration camp where the composer was interned during World War II, and received its performance in the camp for an audience of prisoners and prison guards with Messiaen playing a busted up old piano.
Many performers have had parallel careers performing and participating in religious communities – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan continued performing at Sufi shrines in Pakistan after his recordings became a fixture of yoga classes in the West. In other religious communities, including Christian Pentecostal churches, everybody sings and everybody participates and there is no audience. The line between producer and consumer is erased — and participants would probably claim that God (or Gods, or spirits) is the producer and the audience too. Communes offer another version of this — Amon Duul in Munich 1967, the early Faust in Würme emerged as “rock groups” out of much more undefined sets of collective activities, of which making music was one kind of ritual, complete with “om” chants, “tribal” percussion jams and other spiritual elements. Or Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, a group emerging out of a commune of 100 people living in a mansion in Los Angeles, selling home made LPs for $1 in their health food restaurant. Or the Sun Ra Arkestra in Philadelphia, whose performances always felt like looking in on a private festival or ritual, complete with esoteric language and style. Although not overtly religious, such groups made music as a way of exploring and expressing an ecstatic community that was an end in itself, and a “spiritual” one at that. Making and selling recordings could be an act of evangelism, a crazy get-rich-quick scheme fuelled by “cosmic” intuitions, or simply a humble attempt to make a living and support the community.
Indian classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath thought that students recording his lessons, or even notating what he was singing, was a bad idea and a corruption of what the music really is. Furthermore, he was against the recording of music and found even amplification problematic. He lived for a while in a famous Siva cave in the foothills of the Himalaya, singing for God and the community living in the cave – supporting himself with occasional trips to Delhi to perform for All India Radio. Practice, and the perfection of it also becomes an end in itself. Practice is of course a part of many music cultures from the decades of finger studies of classical pianists to weekly punk rock band practice. But the word practice also has a religious meaning, when the discipline of making music is performed with the intention of perfecting oneself before God. In such a practice, one might never actually utter a sound – in some traditions, the repetition of mantras, sacred or magical phrases, is thought to be more powerful if it is entirely mental; I’ve also been told of Indian classical musicians who mentally practice scales hundreds of octaves above or below those found on a piano, as an act of concentration.
At the highest level the mystery of music concerns the manifestation of sound as a set of powerfully affective structures that come from … who knows where? But if music is a gift then the act of listening also becomes creative and potentially devotional. Thus Cage’s 4’ 33” or Philip Corner’s “I Can Walk Through the World as Music”, both pieces where music and meditation come close to one another, in the act of paying attention to the actually existing sound environment. This act of paying attention could take you a long way – in various yogic traditions, one is advised to listen to “the unstruck sound”, the sound that remains when all that is temporary fades away again after manifesting … the original drone, Nad Brahma – “sound is God”.
Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Ustad Hafizullah Khan, Hazrat Allaudin Sabri’s shrine, Dehra Dun, India, February 2001
The idea of a live performance not intended primarily for human ears is a powerful one – and many religious traditions value the idea of singing for God. In the Sufi temples of India and Pakistan, the main sound played in the courtyard is qawalli, ecstatic vocals backed by harmoniums and hand drums, popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also sang at all night sessions at Sufi shrines. Hazrat Allaudin Sabri was a fourteenth century Sufi master (founder of the Chishti-Sabri branch of Sufism) said to be so intense and austere that the only person who could stand near him was his musician, who sat with his back to him at some distance, so as not to be scorched by the master’s vibrations. 600 years later, Sabri’s shrine is still a very intense place, the shrine itself full of men praying, many of them in states of ecstasy. I visited the shrine with several masters of the Kirana gharana (Pandit Pran Nath’s gharana) to whom the place is sacred, including the late Ustad Hafizullah Khan, khalife of the gharana and a master sarangi player, and the remarkable singer Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan. It was mid-day, we sat in the courtyard, a crowd gathered, kids, old men, everything between. The singing began, not qawalli, but Hindustani raga music, and the crowd listened. Hafizullah’s son Samiullah began to sing and it pierced my heart, a beautiful pure tone. I looked around and saw that I wasn’t alone. The atmosphere was one of intoxication, tears, drunkenness, a world turned upside down but gently so. I saw a man do a backflip while pacing back and forth on the marble verandah to the temple, totally entranced. I felt like I’d smoked a pound of hash. “Music can do all this!” as one of my colleagues said to me.
Concerto for Voice and Machinery, Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget etc, the ICA, London, January 1984.
There are moments at a live performance, all too rare, when reality shudders, and our ability to stand aside as objective or passive observers collapses. As we are pulled into the vortex of the event, which Antonin Artaud gave the name of the theater of cruelty, there’s a surging of mythical forces. As the field of the possible opens up, things manifest as highly charged, overlapping fragments. Power moves through us. The Concerto for Voice Machinery held at the ICA, reviled but diligent patron of the avant garde, was such a moment.
There was a cement mixer on stage. And some power drills. Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget, various friends. Some microphones. I’m not sure what we were expecting. Some noise, probably, or, more idealistically, for some new buildings to collapse.
At some point glass was tossed into the amplified cement mixer, making a tremendous sound. Someone announced that there was a secret tunnel beneath the ICA leading to Buckingham Palace. Someone else, perhaps Blixa Bargeld, started drilling into the floor of the building (or was it the stage?). The sound was intoxicating, surging purple waves of noise. Dust and sparks flew. Property was being damaged. The management tried to turn the sound off. A tug of war developed between the audience and bouncers for control of the mobile power generator which was powering the cement mixer and drill. Gasoline was leaking everywhere. Someone from the ICA tried to reason with the audience, but after a brief debate, earnestly conceded that the audience was right.
Did the police come? I don’t remember. Did anyone find the secret tunnel and make it for a secret rendezvous with the Queen? I don’t know. Outside of that theater of cruelty and that mad moment of intensity, the pigeon shit in Trafalgar Square and long night time train ride back to south London awaited us, as though nothing whatsover had happened. But for a brief moment, Einsturzende Neubauten started to live up to their name.
Schooly D circa “Saturday Night”, Public Enemy circa “Rebel Without a Pause”, 1000 Boomboxes and Car Stereos, Streets of New York City, 1985-6.
Those visiting the yuppie playground that Manhattan has become today will find it hard to imagine the New York of the early 1980s, subway trains covered with spectacular graffiti, and the streets alive with the sound of hip-hop and funk blasted from beatboxes the size of refrigerators and a thousand car stereos. The city-wide avant art extravaganza pulled off by Dondi, Rammellzee and other graf heroes found it’s analog in a world of sonic experimentation that reached a peak of gorgeous weirdness in the mid-1980s in the early tracks of Philadelphia rapper Schooly D, and the Hank Shocklee/Eric Sadler productions of Public Enemy. Schooly D’s first records such as “P.S.K. (What Does it Mean?)” and “Saturday Night” remain some of the strangest, most dusted hip-hop tracks ever made. Somehow the dull, superheavy drum machine rhythms that hold these tracks together already contain in them the distorted echo of boombox bass and drums echoing through the canyons of projects, a nihilistic ghost sound underscored by Schooly D’s mumbled, just about incomprehensible lyrics, full of menace and mysterious doped up thrills, ready to clear any pavement. It sounded even better when heard on the radio in the street, with strange audible delays resulting when the track was simultaneously broadcast on stereos one two or ten blocks away. Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” is probably as close as we’ll ever get to having free jazz pumped at deafening volume into every public space in a city. The screeching siren like sax loop that sounded so fearsome blasting from a car rumbling across the potholes of Flatbush Avenue, bound for do or die Bed Stuy bound, actually comes “The Grunt” by the JBs. The sound ruled the streets and everybody knew it – Chuck D’s later claim that rap was a “black CNN” seems like a poor consolation prize by comparison.
La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela – New York City, The Dream House, Fall 1993 to present.
Even as other minimalists are feted globally and reissue programs make available more and more amazing archival tapes and performances, it remains next to impossible to hear recordings of the work of minimalist founder La Monte Young. A strange paradox then that all you need to do to hear Young’s work is walk up the stairs at 275 Church Street in Tribeca New York, between 2 and midnight on a Thursday or Saturday, to become fully immersed in a sound and light environment by Young and his partner, visual artist Marian Zazeela. The full title of Young’s static drone tone piece is itself too long to print here, but, to quote Young’s description, it’s “a periodic composite sound waveform environment created from sine wave components generated digitally in real time on a custom-designed Rayna interval synthesizer.” Young and Zazeela first developed the concept of the Dream House in the early 1960s as semi-permanent sound and light environments where Zazeela’s calligraphic light sculptures cast luminous shadows while Young’s drones manifest and gesture toward a world of eternal sound. The atmosphere is somewhere between the Rothko Chapel and an Indian raga house concert. No performers, just speaker stacks, a carpeted floor and pillows, magenta lights. You can move and experience the sonic grid created by the tones used in the piece, or lay still and explore the way that “tuning is a function of time” as Young says. Young says that it’s unlikely that anyone has ever experienced the feelings created by the complex cluster of just intonation tones that compose this sound environment. My own experiences in the room have not been ecstatic, in fact I find it difficult to point to any particular affective power in the sound. Yet there’s a strange magnetism to that peanut-butter thick wall of sound in that room that keeps me coming back, “eternal sound” that waits patiently for us to change and recognize it for what it is.
The Buddha Machine is a plastic transistor radio sized object with a built in speaker that allows the listener to switch between 9 infinitely repeating sound loops, each ambient, minimal and melodic and all under 40 seconds. Made by FM3 (“FM San” in Mandarin), the Beijing based duo of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian, it has become one of the more unlikely successes to emerge from the global improv/electronic underground. Originally made in an edition of 500, half of which were to be used in art installations and performances, Virant and Zhang Jian have sold over 15,000 of the machines, and have been lauded by everyone from Spin to Entertainment Weekly. In a remarkable act of generic mismatching/shoe-horning, the New York Times listed the machine as one of the best boxed sets of 2005. A parade of hipster cognoscenti, from Brian Eno to the Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop have bought multiples of the machine and sung its praises, and in November, Staubgold will release a compilation of Buddha Machine remixes called Jukebox Buddha including contributions by Tortoise, Sun O))), Aki Onda, Adrian Sherwood, Blixa Bargeld and others.
Virant and Zhang Jian began FM3 in Beijing in 1999, at a time when there was no electronic music scene to speak of in the city. Virant, who grew up in Nebraska during the hardcore punk era of the early 1980s, had been living in various East Asian cities since the late 1980s, learning traditional instruments, while experimenting with minimalist loop based methods of computer music composition. Jhang Zian, who grew up in Chengdu in Szechuan province, studied piano in music school there, but dropped out to become a travelling musician. He moved to Beijing in 1995, the same year that Virant did, and became keyboard player of choice for the city’s underground rock acts like Confucius Says. In recent years, he has made his living creating soundtracks for theater, film and TV in Beijing.
FM3 began with the idea of musical performance built around a computer. The group started out making acid house-like tracks with a guitarist, but when the group became a duo, began working with folk music samples. At first the duo hired local musicians to record samples for them. But according to Virant, “we were never interested in making Chinese electronic folk music. Around 2002, we realized that what we wanted these people to play, we could do ourselves. What we were looking for were the weird things, the accidents, the pauses in between their really eloquent melodies. So we borrowed these instruments and then immediately it became much easier to make our music. At that time we performed live with prepared Chinese instruments or invented or modified ones, along with two laptops playing drones.”
This period is captured well on Ambience Sinica, a bootleg of a 2002 performance, and the more recent Mort aux Vaches disk released by Staalplaat in 2005. In fact, most of the sound loops that appear on the Buddha Machine are made from samples of traditional Chinese instruments including the gu zheng (Chinese koto), ma tou qin (Mongolian “horse head” fiddle) and sheng (mouth organ) used as loops in live performances from this period. Outside of performance, the duo split the work up, with Zhang Jian contributing an ever growing array of field recordings, and Virant cutting up and editing them.
As an outgrowth of their interest in transforming field recordings, the duo have made two contributions to Sun City Girls’ ethnomusicological label Sublime Frequencies, the excellent Streets of Lhasa, consisting of recordings of folk music and street sounds in the Tibetan capital, and Radio Pyongyang, a bizarre and fascinating edit of North Korean “commie funk” and other propaganda pop, taped from shortwave radio by Virant in Hong Kong and Beijing. Zhang Jian does not speak English, but in what sounds like more than fair Mandarin, Virant conveys my questions to him and I get brief, rather modest replies. I ask him how he relates to Sublime Frequencies aesthetic of weirdness and appropriation and he replies: “the Tibet things you can’t say are weird – actually it’s quite beautiful. Weirdness is an attraction of course, but when I start editing at home, I go for the beautiful parts, not just weirdness.”
Soon to come on Sublime Frequencies are recent recordings made by Zhang in Bangladesh, a second volume of North Korean sounds (as a Chinese citizen, Zhang can enter the country freely) and a compilation of recordings of minority folk musics from rural China, originally recorded and released by Huan Qing, an old friend of Zhang’s from Szechuan in a hand lettered and packaged 8 CD set in China.
Recently the group has been asked to contribute a sound environment for one of the parks at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. When I ask Virant whether he feels that FM3 are in danger of becoming poster-boys for globalization, Virant laughs and deadpans “Unfortunately we have not been exploited as a model for globalization!” In fact the group remains virtually unknown in China, outside of the small but rapidly expanding electronic music scene. “If you’re a really famous person like a theater actor you get invited to Germany to give a performance of traditional Chinese culture, you stay for a week and then you go back home. It’s a cultural exchange understanding of the world. Zhang Jian said recently that he’s not making more money now than he was say when we played the Louvre. If a classical musician like Tan Dun played the Louvre he’s famous and it’s a big deal in China. We played three shows at the Louvre to 500 people and it’s not in the media, nobody here knows about it – because people don’t understand what we’re doing.”
Alternative culture is emerging slowly in Beijing, and FM3 does play underground rock venues like Nameless Highland and Get Lucky, as well as “the current home of the avant garde”, a Tuesday night show called Waterland Kwanyin at a bar called Dos Kolegas, curated by Yan Jun (who also runs Kwan Yin records). There are magazines like Tong Su Ge Qu (“Pop Song Weekly”) devoted to underground rock, but FM3 is outside their radar. “With our current Buddha Boxing show, Zhang and I sit at a table and play Buddha Machines as if it were a card game. And the concept of it people don’t get – they don’t consider it a performance, so very quickly it’s not something they write about, and they ignore it.” Nevertheless, he insists that FM3 is a Beijing group, and that the Chinese and American origins of the duo are irrelevant, compared to their own particular musical tastes and ways of working. There is also a rapidly expanding noise/electronica scene in Beijing fuelled by almost universal access to computers and bootleg software. “You essentially have a nation of kids with access to free instruments and that instrument happens to be a laptop,” says Virant. In the wake of this access, a million Merzbows are blooming.
How to explain the success of the Buddha Machine? Setting aside the unquestionable beauty of the loops, there is something about the conjunction of these very abstract, brief, melodic, infinitely repeatable fragments with a Chinese factory-manufactured plastic object that really speaks to the moment that we find ourselves in. The Buddha Machine is like globalization in a box, and embodies many of its contradictions. Marx said that commodity fetishism turned a table on its head and made it dance around. Now FM3 have produced a fetish object that plays its own music to dance to – an industrial era manufactured object with an information age sound coming out of it. All the more ironic, since the original Buddha Machine, which looped Buddhist mantras and chants, related a pre-modern sound, that of devotional singing, to an industrial era object, arguably transforming it in the process into “information”. FM3’s Buddha Machine (neither of the group are Buddhists), is essentially an appropriation of the original design (sold in China as “Chang Fo Ji”), with the group’s own musical loops replacing the mantras. And their machine is produced at a Buddhist factory on the SW Chinese coast, whose primary business is making the original chanting machines for export to Buddhist temples and believers throughout the world.
Through their experiences working with the factory, Virant and Zhang Jian have become unlikely participants in the remarkable explosion of industrial activity that is happening in China today. “Every time we go to the factory we’re inspired because that area of China is where huge amounts of global products are made,” observes Virant. “You drive down the street and you see factories making this and that and we stop at every one. That’s all we really do now is weird factory tours throughout China looking for ideas! It’s inspiring being in this place that most people regard as a huge export base, making toys for the global economy — but which we see as a fertile ground for ideas.”
“Recently we were talking about making a new FM3 product,” Virant continues, “And Zhang said “OK, we’ve got to go to this city to do it,” and when we get there it’s a huge marketplace for bizarre things like keychains with LED lights. One market there is the world’s largest market for sunglasses and a high percentage of all the world’s sunglasses are made there. There are huge airline hangars where the producers display their wares – you go there and say “OK, I want 100 million of these,” — they’re not retail places. The real problem we had with the Buddha Machine is that we don’t look or talk like serious businessmen and we’re not going to buy a hundred million of anything so people won’t deal with us, because they don’t want to waste their time talking to weird musicians from Beijing. If Jeff Koons and others who deal with huge art projects started visiting these cities, eventually all global art projects would be exported from China! An installation person would just say “OK, I want this and this and this” and get it done at these factories and have them ship it over to whatever gallery he’s exhibiting in.”
FM3 have become garageland commodity producers, involved in a strange kind of DIY mass production – much like the Chinese factory owners whose initiation into the industrial capitalist marketplace dates to around the same time as the post-punk DIY ethos that spawned Virant’s interest in music. The Buddha Machines, with their tinny speakers and cheap, bright, plastic vibe are disposable, fragile, and peculiarly intimate – just like a lot of the “trashy” objects made in these factories and sold in shopping malls around the world. FM3 celebrate this aesthetic. “The first generation models were designed so you had to hold it really close to your ear to hear it properly,” enthuses Virant. “We like the intimacy of it – you have to get so close to this piece of plastic and then out of it comes this really evocative piece of music. Zhang and I have always been about taking cheap equipment to any place we can play. On the one hand we’re quite lazy and always looking for the easy way out, and on the other, we’re very devoted to this simple way of performing. With the Buddha Machine, the design of the boxes, the printing, we got it all done at the last minute. Even the speaker and the lo-fi 6-bit chip – we really like that. It gives you the idea that anyone could have done it and should have 20 years ago.”
“We were joking that if Carston Nikolai had made the Buddha Machine it would be this beautiful, brilliantly designed, hand crafted, silver 24-bit stereo amazing thing,” concludes Virant. “We play very quiet hypnotic music and the Buddha Machine is inoffensive, unassuming, made of cheap plastic. Almost like a Tamagotchi that plays music. That’s the kind of thing we’re attracted to. You have to see beyond the crass commercialization of all this stuff – and because Zhang and I are not living in a Xmas dominated economy we can. In the West maybe you see a Furby doll and it’s annoying because whatever Xmas ago Furby was huge, but what we see is an amazing speech recording device which we can then mold into any shape we want.”
“Strange lads”, says performer Aimée Dawn Robinson, looking towards the makeshift stage that fills a part of the front room at Tranzac, an Australia and New Zealand social club that is the current center of experimental and improvised music in Toronto, in particular for the ensembles associated with excellent local label Rat-Drifting. On stage are The Reveries: Ryan Driver kneels on the floor with a mike placed in his mouth, strumming a quasi-ruler with a very elastic bass sound; Doug Tielli plays guitar and has a nose flute strapped to his face, through which he makes muffled sounds; Eric Chenaux, also strumming guitar, sings through a harmonica that is shoved up into his face. The group lurch through a set of standards including Jobim’s “Useless Journey” and “The Nearness of You”, filled with beautiful harmonics and stuttering guitar sounds that sound like Derek Bailey and the Hi-Los, bound, gagged and dosed with sedatives, then thrown into the boot of an old Cadillac, from which they continue to play, presumably for their lives. The room is almost empty, as it is for most Rat Drifting shows, and the Bluegrass band in the back room sounds louder through the walls than the guys right in front of us. A Friday night crowd of drunks staggers by the front window, peering through the glass and making faces at what they see. Strange.
Toronto’s experimental music scene has always had a hermit-like status in its hometown. Pianist and radio-work composer Glenn Gould refused to talk to people in person towards the end of his life. CCMC, the collective that has included Michael Snow, John Oswald and many other key Toronto improvisors, were famous for weekly shows to a mostly empty room at their performance space, The Music Gallery. More recent experimenters like Sarah Peebles and Nilan Perrera also remain virtually unknown to the city as a whole. Nobody seems too bothered by this. Rat-Drifting co-founder Martin Arnold compares the scene in Toronto to medieval monasteries which “were fierce places in terms of saving information that had come down to them. There’s still that abbey ideal here that this stuff is going on some place and you can join it if you want but if you don’t, it’s OK, because it’s going to be there anyway. It’s a place where you can remove yourself from given strains of cultural production and consumption.”
Rat-Drifting began when Arnold, an Edmonton-born composer and folk music fiend, traveled up to York University (where James Tenney also taught, and where I do now) to assist former CCMC member and improvisation guru Casey Sokol in a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. During work on the piece, Arnold met a number of Sokol’s younger students, including Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli, who all started playing downtown. Through this network, Arnold also met Eric Chenaux, former bassist of Canadian indie pop band Crash Vegas, as well as playing with his own post rock outfit Phleg Camp, and together, inspired by the efforts of Constellation and Alien8 in Montréal amongst others, they began Rat-Drifting in 2002.
Since that time, Rat-Drifting has gradually evolved into a whole ecosystem of cross-linked ensembles, most of which have produced highly impressive CDs. There’s the Reveries whispery distorted standards on Blasé Kisses, the Draperies’ synth and guitar improv on l’histoire du chapeau, Arnold’s pet project the Marmots’ Scratch Orchestra-like psychedelic jug band on Treacle Wall. And then there’s The Silt, whose two CDs, Red Whistle and Earlier Ways to Wander are full of glorious unlikely rock songs that emerge almost at random out of the conjunction of the three improvisors, Tielli, Driver and Marcus Quin, many of them sounding like Neil Young (another Ontario son) played at 16 r.p.m. Soon to come are the wobbling Beefheart-like big band Saint Dirt Elementary School, The Ryan Driver Quartet, featuring Driver’s gorgeous Chet Baker signaling through the flames vocals, and a remarkable half hour reworking of the traditional “Tam Lin” by Arnold for the Draperies and Toronto new music ensemble Array Music. It all sounds like an imaginary urban folk music – created for a place that has few obvious folk traditions other than native cultures, or the tradition of buying records made in other places.
Chenaux speaks of the label’s enthusiasm for improvising around song. “The song is older than anything. People like songs wholeheartedly here. It’s a great form for fucking with – and jazz standards allow so much.” “Those songs have so many valencies,” agrees Arnold. “They give you all the lushness and kitsch you want, but they have a history of being improvised on in the most serious way, and a lot of material to mess around with harmonically and melodically. The farther it gets from jazz, the more I like it.” Rat Drifting’s most recent success in this song-warping vein is Flocklight by Josh Thorpe, which consists of transcriptions of sections of songs by Tom Waits and The Shaggs, time-stretched so that they’re eight times longer than the originals, which form the basis for a series of remarkable ten minute plus pieces performed by Chenaux, Thorpe and others on a variety of string instruments. The result sounds like country’n’gagaku – very slow spiralling melodies that go round and round.
In describing their music the Rat-Drifters favor words like “slackness”, “laziness”, and “languor”. Chenaux speaks of his love for Cardew, Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars’ amazing 1,2, 1,2,3,4, which he’s performed with the Draperies, a composition in which a group of improvisors all play along with tapes heard through headphones that slowly go out of synch, creating a strange hallucinatory drift between the different performers. Which is sort of how Canada, a place terminally drifting away from itself, feels too.
“If you live in New York or Berlin or London,” says Arnold, “I don’t think you can even imagine the Reveries. Chicago and Louisville have histories of music that’s unbelievably raw and slow, but it’s exemplarily slow. It’s not just slow, it’s “Will Oldham slow.” And I like Will Oldham, but it’s very hard for an American not to be exemplary. So even if they’re doing washed out psychedelic music, it’s got to be the most washed out psychedelic music, and I think you hear them entrepreneurially placing their imagination.”
The Reveries’ sound, built around guitars and distorted vocal sounds, strips away most of the obvious signs of a recognizable song, leaving a hazy harmonic fog that sounds at once nostalgic and psychedelic, a distorted, drugged out, improvised memory. As improvisation, each piece retains a lot of the affective powers of song without retaining the shape or form. Arnold says he’s fascinated by “music that isn’t meant to be listened to – people practicing; lounge jazz at the end of the night when no one’s there; people whistling or humming to themselves; Elizabethan consort music, the stuff that was written for amateurs.” “Hopefully it doesn’t come across as theater,” says Chenaux. “I like the things that happen when you’re concentrating on something else, if you’re gardening or writing and you’re humming or whistling, the way that you make a melody happen when you’re not playing close scrutiny to it.”
“I have a very hard time believing in the past,” says Philip Corner, speaking from his home in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he has lived since 1992. “In some way it’s just not real to me. I’ve always had a sense of things being outside of time. It doesn’t matter historically when something was written. I’ve even indicated in some things where I’ve come very close to a universal principle, of putting in the score that this can be done again under a different title, under a different composer’s name.”
Chronicling the life of the often mentioned but undercelebrated 71 year old American composer, best known for his connections to Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater, presents an interesting challenge. Thanks to a recent programme of reissues by Italian label Alga Marghen and the rediscovery of Corner’s remarkable 1970s and 80s work with Gamelan Son Of Lion, recently reissued by Locust, we have a window into Corner’s extraordinarily diverse activities. But what if, as Corner suggests above, a life in sound consisted precisely in stepping outside of biography or documentation? How would such a life be acknowledged or remembered by anyone who has not directly encountered the musician or composer in question? And in Corner’s case, how can one talk about someone who, by taking to a limit some of John Cage’s ideas of freeing music from the legacy of the composer, the notational score, and so on, risked disappearing entirely into sound, without a trace of his activities?
“I never understood why Cage didn’t go any further,” Corner declares. “He opened up something and then he stopped. Since Cage was so concerned with getting rid of what he called the Western claptrap, to stop at the point he did and attack improvisation, which is spontaneity and vision and being in the moment and research and search – by the end of his life, he was negating the basis of his whole aesthetic.”
By contrast Corner has continued to develop Cage’s legacy for the last 40 years, exploring the world of sound from a broad range of positions and perspectives, even for a tradition that prides itself on pulling the rug out from under its own feet. Corner has clearly come to feel at home in the groundless multiplicity that is the sound world. “It used to be that outside of music you have noise, or outside of structure you have chaos and that’s out,” he explains. “I don’t have any sense of that. There are people who represent extreme positions. La Monte Young’s early stuff is really hyperminimal compared with Cage, who was hypermaximal, and together they form an axis. But then at right angles to that you might have free jazz on one side and some kind of ethnic music on the other. And these form a definition of the limits of what essentially is a circle. I think it’s an infinite circle with these kinds of extreme stylistic manifestations at certain points along the edge. I feel that I’ve been working from the edge in towards the centre, which is where you have music, art, structure, tunes, dances – things that are relatively rational or coherent. I’ve also done some things that are working in that cultural centre where you have…” he pauses, deadpanning, “real notes, real tunes, real music.”
Corner’s work has encompassed tape music, piano improvisations involving just about every part of the piano and indeterminate numbers of performers; sound meditations and walks, Alpine horn pieces; a series of interactions with rock ’n’ roll and jazz entitled Popular Entertainments; many compositions for gamelan, some performed on computers, others on the piano, others on traditional and reconstructed Indonesian instruments; a vast body of work exploring the sonic potentialities of metals; orchestral pieces such as If And When It Will Ever Again Be Possible To Write A Piece For Symphony Orchestra (1969) – where “each player has a chance at uninhibited self-expression” – and conceptual sound pieces that range from the self-explanatory minimalism of One Note Once to a conceptual piece entitled Of Hearing The Whole World, which he describes as “a fantasy of an incredible scene, making things as complex as possible”.
“Mostly,” he admits, “I’ve worked around the edges, from some point, in. In pieces like One Note Once, I’ve worked towards an extreme position of: how much can you get rid of? How much do you not need? That’s a very extreme point. Beyond that you have silence which is even less. But in a certain sense silence isn’t less, it’s more. It opens up action, spontaneous theatre, noise, which you could say is diametrically opposed [to silence], 180 degrees in the opposite direction. But these are all extreme points.”
The sheer diversity of Corner’s work forces one to question what it means to talk about a composer or musician’s style. “I’ve noticed,” he says, “that I could be satisfied to stay at any one of these places, and you could say that a lot of people find their style doing that. But there’s no reason why you should be at one place any more than any other, minimal or maximal, jazz or ethnic. It just seemed arbitrary, culturally determined in the most provincial sense, that you find yourself at one particular point and stay there. Nevertheless at any one particular point there’s an infinite number of possibilities, and not just for yourself. In a way this kind of stuff is a discovery rather than an invention, one that’s opened up to other people too. Once these things are discovered, they’re part of human culture and tradition, open to the whole world forever. So I feel that for each one of these areas that was staked out, which manifested in my work, with the conscious resolve to push them in certain directions, I have gone to maximal extremes.”
Once inside the sound world with Corner, ideas flow forth in whole pages of precise thoughts. Try to come back to history, biography, time and he slows down, as though slugging through quicksand, not resentful, but suddenly unable to fly. Still, a few facts emerge. Corner was born in New York’s Bronx in 1933, where he began composing when 12. In 1955 he received a government grant to study in France, and attended Olivier Messiaen’s courses at the Conservatoire in Paris for the following two years, and was already composing Cage-like indeterminate works by the late 1950s.
In 1959, in a move he describes as “fortuitous”, Corner was drafted into the US army and sent to Korea, where he discovered what he calls “the most beautiful piece of music in the history of the world”, a Korean court orchestra piece called Sujecheon (Long Life, As Endless As The Sky). Somewhat similar in style to the Japanese gagaku court music that had a profound effect on minimalists like La Monte Young and their interest in slow tempos and duration. The music’s spaciousness, use of glissandi and very slow tempos made itself felt on Corner’s Situations, composed and performed in Korea, and on pieces like 1962’s Lovely Music, along with others to be found on the soon to be issued More From The Judson Years: Instrumental/Vocal Works on the Italian archival label Alga Marghen.
“One of the things I learnt in Korea was to go into the quality of sound,” says Corner. “I wanted to bring this notion into the range of possibilities – not in order to sound oriental, but to enter into this thing that the Orient had explored that the West hadn’t. And I pushed that as far as it could go, finding that place on the outside of the circle – which funnily enough leads to something that’s 180 degrees removed, which is self expression! Self expression’s supposed to be out. But there’s this link between the objectivity of listening to the world as it is, to sounds as they really are, and seeing in that self expression and feeling all the direct correlates of that in the human body, the human being. The wind blowing or the waves have the same quality as someone screaming or sighing. What’s coming from the inside of somebody’s experience is definitely related to how the world is working.”
Corner returned from Korea in 1961 to a New York in the middle of a creative renaissance. Suddenly dance, music, film, poetry, theatre, art and every other category of artistic production and experience were being gleefully taken apart and reassembled in a multiplicity of events, counter-events, actions and happenings that, much to the irritation of many involved, including Corner, have become associated with the name/word Fluxus.
“There was no such thing as ‘Fluxus’ at the time,” he asserts. “Let’s talk about specific people. Of course Cage I met during my Columbia days and got to know him pretty well. I also met Dick Higgins. My good friend was Malcolm Goldstein. Also Richard Maxfield. Some of these people had a foot in Fluxus, and some had other connections. Through Malcolm I met Jim Tenney, through whom I met Carolee Schneeman. Through Dick I met Alison Knowles and Jackson MacLow. La Monte Young. I knew George Brecht. I knew Yoko Ono from before I went to Korea. And then there was George Maciunas who was an organiser, who pulled together a lot of people who were already working, who’d already created a style and performed together. He put together some programmes and called it Fluxus and it became this thing with an ideology and a manifesto, everything else that is now causing confusion in the world about what Fluxus was and is.”
Depending on how you look at it, the early 1960s were either an excellent or a very bad time to be a piano. Corner’s Piano Activities was infamously performed at the 1962 Wiesbaden festival, which is often considered the inauguration of Fluxus. The piece, whose score advises a group of people to, among other things, “play”, “pluck or tap”, “scratch or rub”, “drop objects” on, “act on strings with”, “strike soundboard, pins, lid or drag various kinds of objects across them” and “act in any way on underside of piano” resulted in the total destruction of the piano at the hands of a group including Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Alison Knowles and George Maciunas, and was considered scandalous enough at the time to make it onto German television. Although Corner says that the objective was not necessarily to destroy the instrument, Piano Work (1970) features his high school students from the New Lincoln School in Harlem, taking an old piano apart with their hands in what he calls an “operatic” performance, while discussing their creative work of destruction. “Dig it!” says one student, gleefully.
Another early 1960s Corner piano piece of note is Keyboard Dances, which the composer performed at the Judson Dance Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. A Peter Moore photograph from this period shows him seated at the piano, his foot resting on the keyboard with a delicacy and precision somewhere between that of a dancer doing warmup exercises and a kung fu master about to chop a block of wood in two with one intensely focused blow. A reconstruction of one of these dances on 1998’s Forty Years Plus One: Philip Corner Plays The Piano (XI) confirms the surprising mixture of delicacy and pulsing keyboard clusters.
Corner moved through the world of the 1960s New York avant garde chronicled by performance critic Sally Banes in books like Greenwich Village 1963: The Effervescent Body and Democracy’s Body, her history of the Judson company, for whom he composed and performed a variety of pieces, collaborating with many key figures in contemporary dance including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and other future stars of the avant garde such as composer and vocalist Meredith Monk, cellist Charlotte Moorman and artist Robert Rauschenberg. He met his wife, the dancer Phoebe Neville there too. He also wrote for Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre and formed the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in 1963 with composers James Tenney and Malcolm Goldstein, to perform Charles Ives’s vocal music, which was at that time out of fashion – but soon branched out into performing their own work and those of their Fluxus pals.
During this period Corner expanded his use of non-traditional scores, hundreds of which have since been published in beautiful editions by Frog Peak Music (www.frogpeak.org). These scores offer an encyclopedia of alternative ways of describing a musical piece, ranging from a single sentence instruction (like the self-explanatory One Note Once) to a baroque visual mapping of possibilities of, say, one of his gamelan pieces, often involving calligraphic or other visual elements, blurring the line between a text, a painting and a piece of music.
What sound at first like ‘improvisations’ are in fact well crafted sets of parameters and instructions to be observed by the performing group, giving rise to chaotic spontaneities and regrouped constellations of order that are as much a discovery for the performers as for any audience. Most of the compositions do not indicate particular instrumentation. As with the work of a number of the key New York composers of that period, “the concept is the composition… It’s certainly not just a question of, Well, we’re here, we’re free, let’s do anything we want,” Corner continues. “It’s always bothered me that the tradition that we’ve come down with, of music literature, has pushed us into putting down every note and turning the interpreter into a technician. This ridiculous idea of the will of the composer and the perfect realisation of the score. The idea of allowing personal variation, whether improvised or done by ear, has always been attractive to me. With my scores, instead of detail being defined, such as the tune, etcetera, the framework is indicated. My work has a range of possibilities that can be defined.”
In the case of Corner’s Elementals, which consists of a series of ‘fill in the blank spaces’ for pitch, tempo, instrument, etc, that range is quite considerable. The piece received its premiere in 1977 at New York’s Kitchen, at the suggestion of the venue’s music director Rhys Chatham, in a performance that lasted for five days, involving up to 40 musicians at different times, all playing a C sharp at a tempo of once per second. Alga Marghen hopes to put the recordings out as a DVD soon.
However beautiful the recordings of Corner’s work from the 1960s are, to really experience his work, you should get together with a group of friends (or enemies, for that matter) and actually perform them. While certainly not unique in doing this, Corner’s work from the 1960s opened a door out of the controlled space of the stage, not to say the medium of recorded music, to a more general experience of the sound world. In 1965’s never realised Vietnam War piece, Anti-Personnel Bomb, drastic means of emptying the concert hall were conceived. “It basically says, an anti-personnel bomb will be thrown into the audience, and you print that on the programme as the title of the piece. And then the performance of the piece is to announce that the piece won’t be performed,” comments Corner. In I Can Walk Through The World As Music, from the same year, he took the audience at New York’s Town Hall for a sound walk around Times Square, one of many pieces that focuses on the act of listening to sounds rather than creating them. In 1972, with his first wife Julie Winter, Corner started Sounds Out Of Silent Spaces, a music ritual collective that met twice monthly at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. The group, which included Alison Knowles, Daniel Goode, Charlie Morrow and William Hellermann at various times, would begin each evening with improvisations on found objects and instruments, moving into drone chanting followed by a silent meditation and ending with dance/rhythm based pieces. For Corner, the group provided a way of exploring the spiritual potential of music, without needing to link it to any particular idea of spirituality or spiritual tradition. “Everything is spiritual, depending on how you look at it,” he says. “I certainly think all music is spiritual. I always thought that the most evident spirituality came from chanting on one note – so minimalism, music that eliminates a lot of things in a quite objective way, leads you to a concentrated inner experience. But I wanted the deepest spiritual experiences pure, without the contamination of religious doctrine.”
In 1972, Corner accepted a position in the music department at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers University that had been a Fluxus stronghold since the late 1950s. The College hired ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary in 1973, who, having studied gamelan on the West Coast with Lou Harrison, decided to build an Indonesian gamelan for students to practise on, using instructions supplied by Berkeley Gamelan founder Daniel Schmidt, a sheet of steel and a lot of old grapefruit tins. Benary herself was initially against the idea of mixing Eastern and Western traditions, but as Corner’s New Music Performing Group and composer Daniel Goode became increasingly involved, and Gamelan Son Of Lion (‘Ben Ari’ is ‘son of lion’ in Hebrew) came into being, the group started to develop in a way that, as Benary says, “had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music”.
Gamelan has a long, rich history as an object of inspiration and appropriation for Western composers, going back to Debussy, who heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. Some composers working with gamelan, like Colin McPhee, lived in Bali for periods of time, while others, like Henry Cowell, studied and taught it as part of surveys of World Music. The measured, formal qualities of traditional gamelan at first appear to be highly resistant to the spontaneous singularities characteristic of Corner’s previous work. Surprisingly, an interest in numbers opened the gamelan up to him. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach,” he acknowledges, “and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which numbers always seemed to inhibit. But I can go back to my work in the 1950s, stuff that was even more indeterminate than Cage, but pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. 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. I never renounced long tones fading into silence, gonglike sounds floating in untuned space. With the gamelan you don’t necessarily hear that, but everything is tuned that way, and it still sounds like objects floating in pre-rational space.”
Just as chaos theory shows how mathematical formulae can themselves produce highly unpredictable and complex patterns, pieces like the marvellous Gamelan on Three Pieces For Gamelan, which begins with a slow deep gong sound fading into silence and gradually adds higher pitched instruments playing at increasingly rapid tempos, or the graphically scored Gamelan PC on Gamelan In The New World Vol 2, apply apparently simple principles of pitch and time measurement to each of the individual instruments in the gamelan, collectively producing a rich, highly complex permutating sound.
The other strand that connects Corner’s interest in gamelan to his earlier work is a fascination with the sonic qualities of metal, which he investigated on 1960s works such as the exuberant, booming Gong! or 1973’s Metal Meditations, in which improvisors including David Behrmann explore the resonances of amplified bells and other metal sources. “I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom,” Corner recalls, “and metal involves the possibility of noise as well as resonance, the oriental idea of sound dying away into silence, the use of silence, static sounds and all of that.” The gamelan provided a whole set of new possibilities for meditating on metal – and over the following 20 years, Corner produced more than 400 such pieces.
Gamelan Son Of Lion released the first of two volumes entitled Gamelan In The New World on Moses Asch’s Folkways Records in 1979 (both have recently been reissued by Locust; full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes). The two sets are wonderfully fragile, childlike recordings: beginner’s mind or luck, backed by a fierce determination not to produce anything remotely resembling traditional Indonesian music. Dika Newlin’s Machine Shop, for example, was “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, NJ”, although the set’s most exquisite moment, Benary’s In Scrolls Of Leaves, with its melodious zither, invokes Indian classical music.
“There was a conscious decision, certainly not to impose a group style, but among the leaders there was a desire not to create neo-exotic music – although there was a lot of minimalist, repetitive stuff going on in the 1980s,” Corner recalls. “When I got to the West Coast I saw that there was another aspect to it. That we were [adopts singsong by-rote voice] ‘reactionary East Coasters under the umbrella of the European tradition’, unable to free ourselves from 20th century European avant gardism while they in California were part of a pan-Pacific culture which included Indonesia and Korea and that was really their culture, so that they could do that. And Lou [Harrison] did what he was doing, but there were others who were doing quasi-traditional pieces. I used to call this California style, ‘afternoon on the beach’. To me it had very little to do with real Indonesian music, which somehow, because of Lou’s genius, crept into his music anyway.”
Harrison himself was criticised for using non-traditional elements, especially in later works, such as Suite For Violin And American Gamelan where he mixes Western and Eastern instruments. Corner, who returned to the Bay Area to study with Harrison in 1982, felt that Harrison’s approach to gamelan was “absolutely against everything I believe – that here’s an American composer who decides that he is going to imitate faithfully classical Javanese music and write in a classical Javanese style, just as someone might say, ‘I’m going to do Palestrina counterpoint exercises and call them compositions’. I said: ‘This is absolutely absurd!’ The only thing is that Lou makes it work. And that to me is a great miracle. I just had to accept that.”
Corner himself finally visited Indonesia in 1986, ten years after he began composing for gamelan. In an interview with gamelan composer Jody Diamond made just before his trip, he argued that “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.”
Corner was well received and collaborated with Javanese composers, such as Michael Asmara, with whom he remains in touch, but his involvement with gamelan ended when he left New York for Italy in 1992. However, Benary and Goode have continued to compose and perform with Gamelan Son Of Lion, and have issued a number of new recordings.
In the famous rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari talk about the symbiotic relationship between an orchid and the wasp that seeks out the flower and distributes its pollen. The idea of this productive meeting and collaboration of two or more entirely unrelated objects or beings, resonates with many of Corner’s compositions and ideas, not to mention his theories of harmony, which he developed through an intense interest in exploring the sonic properties of metal.
“The essential harmony is dissonant,” he declares. “Everything we call harmony is essentially counterpoint. Putting together single tones – the relationship between single tones. We use harmony as a kind of prejudice, against disharmony. Some relationships are acceptable, some aren’t. Some we call harmonious, some we don’t. But I see it all as essentially counterpoint. Whenever you take distinct pitches and put them together in combinations, it’s counterpoint.”
The notion that literally any combination of tones is harmonic flies in the face of the equal temperament tuning system that has dominated Western classical music since Bach, but it’s equally foreign to those who favour alternative tuning systems, such as Just Intonation, grounded in particular mathematical or physical principles of sound. For Corner, harmony is about relationship, and relationship is a good thing, the more sonically complex the better, as evidenced by recent works like a p o t h e o s e from Pieces Of Acoustic Reality, in which he conducts metal meditations while an old recording of Baroque composer François Couperin’s Apothéose De Lully plays. It should sound ‘wrong’, but it doesn’t – it sounds contemporary, in the same way that French film maker Jean-Luc Godard’s soundtrack use of classical music sources might.
“Harmony has to do with a sonic entity that does not collapse into an accumulation of components, pitches,” explains Corner. “It’s inherently dense. So the closest approach in equal temperament is a cluster. It’s no surprise that the effect of a cluster is not really violent – if you want violent, dissonant sound, one does much better to have, say, major seventh and minor ninth chords with spaces in between, emphasising the dissonant intervals. When you use a cluster, you can play them very subtly, very softly, and they’re cool, they’re very refreshing, very harmonious. You approach the limit where you can distinguish the components. If you go further, into entities where the component vibrations are much smaller, narrower than the limits of equal temperament, you start getting what I call real harmony. And the model in nature for that is a waterfall. Which is a supercluster. And the flat gong, which doesn’t emphasise a single tone, also creates a wash of sound over a broad spectrum in which the individual components are not extractable. So, to me, that’s harmony.“
It’s also the kind of harmony that sums up Corner’s entire lifework – a supercluster of experimental approaches to creating sound-based works. “I was interested in moving beyond pattern!” he concludes. “I feel it’s necessary to go to the circumference because the circumference is where any one thing equals everything. And it’s just as important to go there as to the centre. But, going there [to the circumference], what you get on the way is the elimination of pattern and you end up with raw material. My music has been concerned with all these elements, possibilities, whether of pulse, single tones, even spontaneity, outcry – as raw material, a totally distilled element of raw nature. As you move towards the centre where human cultures have always been, you find patterned complexities of these elements. I was always interested in revealing the elements, through a process of microscopy, finding the elements, asking: what’s underneath, what’s the thing behind them all?”
More From the Judson Years: Instrumental-Vocal Works Vols 1 and 2 are out this month on Alga Marghen; Gamelan Son Of Lion’s The Complete Gamelan In The New World is out now on Locust. Corner’s scores are available from Frog Peak Music (www.frogpeak.org)
The life of a Honduran shrimp fisherman is not an obvious theme for a piece of cutting edge post-glitch, beatless, wordless electronica, but that’s what Montreal-based Tim Hecker’s new Mille Plateaux release, Radio Amor is about. “I was totally obsessed with the idea of fishermen in the Caribbean,” recalls Hecker. “Fucked up, crapped out transmissions that weren’t receiving totally. Disjunctures in every form. Just the loneliness of being at sea – the idea of the heat, the shitty radios they have on their boats, the sea.” If that’s the case, this is probably the most un-tropical piece of music about the Caribbean ever made – no beats, just surging drones and distorted tone clusters, laced with static and noise. Although Hecker did make a trip to Central America in the mid-1990s, the piece seems built more around the pathos of remembering what sunshine is like, while sitting in his home studio in the middle of a long Canadian winter. “The bitter irony is that when I was recording it,” Hecker says ruefully, “I was in this confined space. Maybe no windows. It’s ironic because in my own mind, the music’s totally referential when I’m making it. But I’m not there at all. I’m in this hot room and it’s snowing outside, minus thirty probably.” Unusually for an electronic musician, Hecker is fascinated by the possibility of giving his ambient, abstract music a thematic shape. “It’s easy to put together nine tracks on your hard disk, press burn and send it off to the label. The fruit really comes when you stop that burn button and think more about what you’re doing. I spend a lot of time putting things together and assembling a narrative. You create some sort of fiction out of it. You could say all that stuff about Caribbean fisherman is total fiction – it’s a practice of writing in a way.” While a song with lyrics is readily understood to be “about” something, Hecker’s work instead creates a fascinating tension between the formless beauty made possible by electronic sound and the listener and musician’s desire for music to tell a story, even if its just the “ambient” story of machines, isolation, absence etc. On 2000’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again, released on Montreal’s Alien8, the narrative appears to be about Canada, and the ambient paradise of the Great Frozen North. “That’s a currency that I exploited as a joke – the Canadian clichés of the tundra and all the fucking snow and shit. That sounds good. In the same way, I exploited the idea of this Caribbean shrimp fisherman on the last one. It’s so easily adaptable to any context. You can say this is about Japanese sado-masochism. It might work. It might also work with penguins on an iceberg that’s about to disintegrate.”
Hecker grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, listening to indie rock. He relocated to Montreal in the 1990s where he studied political philosophy and paramilitary policing with cyber-theorist Arthur Kroker, and inspired by Kroker’s homages to the posthuman joys of the machine, bought some gear and began putting out Autechre-inspired minimalist techno tracks on Force Inc. subsidiary Pitch Cadet under the name of Jetone. By the time of his second CD, 2001’s Ultramarin, Hecker already shows signs of getting tired of the minimalist techno paradigm. Beats drop in and out, clouds of noise and ambient sound hover in the mix. It’s a beautiful work, but one that Hecker is eager to distance himself from: “I had a huge reaction against electronic music because it became so self-referential. I just felt nothing. Beats add a completely arbitrary, artificial structure to things. It seems so much more constricting. It’s all this über-associations: people hear the beat and then determine where it fits into in electronic music where there’s now 500 different micro genres.” Hecker’s first venture into beatlessness, Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again owes as much to Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine as minimalist electronica. “What they did was amazing”, says Hecker, “white noise and walls of sound: I still don’t think people have realized the potential of pure melodic dissonance – overwhelming tones, tectonic tone plates of sound.” His follow-up My Love is Rotten To the Core, a commissioned set of performance pieces, was based around the history and sound of 1980s pop metal giants, Van Halen. Although the bombastic noise-laced samples initially sound like Kid 606-style deconstructions, there’s greater subtlety and purpose to Hecker’s effort.
Hecker’s sampling and manipulations feel like they’re exposing Hagar, Eddie Van Halen et al. to the void, by creating an enormous “ambient” arena, into which their pronouncements, solos and the like, echo and fade. “The more I got into it, the more I got into David Lee Roth and I found he was quite a sage guru. The things he said were totally fucked and totally intelligent. He seemed like a sad clown, a tragic-comic character.” Hecker is skeptical of electronica’s tendency to run through the available iterations of any piece of software or hardware and then move on to the next one. In a recent piece published in Canadian ‘zine Parachute, Hecker writes, “Perhaps a form of electronic music will come which will leave the technology it uses as only a trace – so that the aesthetic field opens up again to allow for spaces which are free from the suffocation of medium-based discourses; an electronic music which leaves its technology as just a murmur.” Hecker’s recent music is certainly heading in that direction. Radio Amor, like Oval’s Diskont 94 or Fennesz’s Endless Summer, succeeds because Hecker finds a way to produce a fluid, living sound that can no longer be said to be “electronic” according to all the cold, machine stereotypes, or “organic” in the sense that it’s the result of a live performance on traditional musical instruments. Hecker sets up vast drifting rhizomes of sound in which live guitar and piano merge with samples and are fed through multiple pathways of sound processing until everything blurs in an intermeshing sonic field. In a sense, all sound sources are finally being sampled and sonically processed. “When you sample something,” says Hecker, “if you have good source material with a certain chord progression or an emotive quality, you can’t go wrong with what you make from that. The essence remains. When you have a beautiful chord and you’re fucking with it, you can’t do too much wrong with it because you’re gonna have a fucked up, beautiful chord at the end!”