Sam Shalabi: The Matrix Imploded

This was originally published in the July 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I am come to tell you that I am Osama, risen from the dead like a phoenix,” says a matter of fact voice on Montreal-based psychedelic/improv musician Sam Shalabi’s extraordinary new release, Osama. The title word summons up the ghost of the hidden or deceased Al Qaeda leader in act of apparent provocation, but it also turns out to be Shalabi’s first name. Born in Libya, of Egyptian parents who emigrated to Canada’s remote Prince Edward Island when he was 5, Shalabi has found himself treated post 0911 as a suspected terrorist merely because of his name and nationality. Osama arrives as a potent musical response to rampant Arabophobia in the West, but also as a very personal, ambivalent and honest description of turbulent times.
Like that other remarkable response to 0911 and its aftermath, David Rees’ comic strip Get Your War On (www.getyourwaron.org), Osama achieves its effect not through dogma or slogan, but by describing what it actually feels like to be living in the West right now. While Get Your War On’s characters are depicted using a tiny repertoire of images of businessmen and women taken from corporate clip art, used over and over so that they appear literally trapped at their desks and their computers, while they discuss their fears and responses to the latest moves in the War on Terror, the cast of Osama’s voices emerge from a montage of musical styles, from balls to the wall guitar heroics, to queasy avant-classical strings, to repetitive driving electronic music and Shalabi’s own self-taught oud explorations. Through all of this are interwoven a variety of human voices, from the sound of someone crying, to a series of monologues and dialogues and songs, to what sounds like whole populations fleeing in panic. The guitars at times seem to be instruments of torture, the embodiment of American military-technological supremacy, while at other times, they express the wordless rage and sorrow of impotent populations shoved around by vast global forces.
Shalabi started work on Osama about a year and a half ago. “I wanted to do something literal and autobiographical, specific to what was going on at that time. But the whole process of doing something “political”, even about what was going on in my life with my background, began to bring up a lot of questions about why was I doing it, what effect did I think it would have and who was I doing it for. So then I stopped because I started to think that the idea of doing protest music about something so huge was self-deceptive and opportunistic. And when I started it again, all those feelings were included in the process of making it, in producing a sketch of what I felt was going on, something that was a bunch of voices, a survey of different feelings, impressions and perceptions of the situation. The whole thing started to get darker, more absurd – there was an element of futility to it. It seemed impossible to do something that was fairly literal, that would say anything that would have any value.”
Osama has gotten some hilariously savage reviews in the alternative press (sample: Stylus magazine says “Osama is not avant; it’s fucking garbage”!). It’s a genuinely disturbing record, precisely because it refuses to be situated in one category or another, whether crudely anti or pro war, experimental or pop. Shalabi speaks of his admiration for mid-1960s Frank Zappa productions like We’re Only In It for the Money, but the disk also recalls the tape splicing delights of The Faust Tapes, and the sheer rage of Caetano Veloso’s1972 “comeback” record Araça Azul, which also gleefully mixes concrete sounds and ethnic recordings with metal guitars and delicate psychedelic pop in an iconoclastic denunciation of conformity during the years of the Brazilian dictatorship. A veteran of the Montreal scene, Shalabi currently plays in 11 ensembles including the ethno-psychedelic improv unit The Shalabi Effect, whose excellent Alien8 CD The Trial of Saint Orange mixes fx laden oud and tabla with guitar and electronics. For Osama, Shalabi brought together a cast of thirty plus musicians from Montreal’s ever fertile avant-rock underground, including Efrim Menuck and Sophie Trudeau from Godspeed!, and Jessica Moss from A Silver Mount Zion.
Like Zappa, and other great pop tricksters, Shalabi plays with our desire for truth and confession on Osama. On “Mid East Tour Diary (2002)”, a musician reads from his tour diary, describing his travels from Casablanca, to Cairo, to Nablus, where he plays a gig after a suicide bomber has struck, ending in Jerusalem, where he has a nervous breakdown and wanders the street in a paranoid daze, before deciding he has to cancel the rest of the tour. The pathos of the story is strong, yet Shalabi reveals that the narrative, like others on the disk, is “a total fabrication. The intention behind that was to do something like a typical musician, fairly articulate, naïve yet politically aware, going on a tour to the middle east, and what his impressions and solutions were to the situation he was in. It’s ridiculous because his solution is to withdraw into himself, and that constitutes solving the mid east crisis! He just implodes on himself.” And so it goes with the other tracks. It’s a hall of mirrors. But in this moment of crude simplifications, three color warning systems and Orwellian doublespeak, Shalabi’s hall of mirrors turns out to be the one place where we can actually see ourselves.
On Osama, and 2002’s On Hashish, Shalabi pays homage to the work of German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose recently translated Arcades Project is a thousand page montage of quotes and theories about nineteenth century Paris that reveals the total fabric of a culture through a vast matrix of perspectives. “One great thing about Walter Benjamin is that he looked at his time and said that all the levels of the culture are intertwined – there’s no outside. Even if you think you’re outside of some of the preconceptions and prejudices of your time, if you’re positioning yourself against them, that doesn’t mean anything. You’re still in that culture and time, and part of the problem with the underground scene is that a lot of people don’t realize that they’re part of the infrastructure of commodification and capitalism. There’s a place in the status quo for dissent, and it’s easily recuperated. It’s another option or choice which people can go towards to feel good about themselves. The thing to look at is the actual medium and ask: does it actually do anything? Are you actually doing anything? And if that’s a question that’s too silly to ask – well, that’s where my sense of futility comes from. Is that all we have: to be able to say these things and comment from a position that’s fairly comfortable, where there’s really not much at stake?”
Osama is out now on Alien8.

Sarah Peebles: Electronic Bug Culture

This was originally published in the May 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I really enjoy the sound of hummingbirds,” says Toronto-based composer Sarah Peebles. “In New Mexico there are a lot of them and I recorded them. That sound is really interesting and when you cut it up and slow it down, to me there’s a transformation that occurs, especially since I have a memory of when they were flying by.” On her recently re-released CD Insect Groove, Peebles has opened up an astonishing sound-space in which natural and synthesized elements co-exist, in such a way that they become indistinguishable from each other. The Japanese reed mouth organ, the shô, played by Peebles and Ko Ishikawa, sounds like a droning just intonation tuned synthesizer, while Peebles’ real time software based sampling and programming transforms recordings of night-time insects, gongs, or railways into warm, bubbling pools of sound. This is a music that does not wear the listener out through relentless repetition, the way so much electronica does, nor does it have the sometimes saccharine serenity of ambient music. It is intense, slow, focused, neither natural nor unnatural, full of delicious singularities – another kind of fourth world music. Peebles grew up in Minnesota, and studied music at the University of Michigan, where she began broadcasting the ongoing radio show The Audible Woman, devoted to showcasing what she calls the “kick-ass activity” of women in classical and experimental music. In 1985, she made her first trip to Japan, where she lived on and off until 1993, and made a multi-year study of gagaku, the hypnotic Japanese court music beloved of La Monte Young et al, and kagura bayashi, a form of masked dance drama performed at Shinto festivals. Her work from this period, collected on Suspended in Amber (Nova, 1996), mixes traditional Japanese instrumentation and forms with electronics. The remarkable “Tomoé” recorded live in a Shinto temple, is at once a site specific electro-acoustic recording, a “traditional” ritual using temple bells and the space of the temple’s hall and garden, a performance piece featuring calligraphy and light, and a sound-work using field recordings of insects and water from Toronto alongside the sound of the shô. Peebles, who relocated to Toronto in 1990, recently composed 108 – Walking Through Tokyo At The Turn of the Century, a fifty minute edited set of street recordings made in Tokyo which continues her interest in Japanese sound culture and environmental recordings. “If you ask a Tokyoite to shut their eyes and give them a tour around town, they’ll tell you where they are without opening their eyes. There’s a consciousness of sound that goes with their culture that’s different to mine,” she observes. “Take bugs, for example. I noticed a real affection for insects, even in the inner city. There’s a history of bug collecting. And now there’s an electronic bug culture of toys too. It extends to seasonal appreciation too. When you’re going to send a card or a present, you think in terms of seasons. I know other cultures do that, but that was my first exposure to that. Sound goes with occasions. Occasions demand sound. The ringing in of the new year, the buying of a ticket, restaurant greetings and farewells. The doors in the subway: there’s a song for each subway station! And the fact is it occurred to them to do that, while in Toronto, all you get is the same boring voice for each station!” Peebles’ current work involves the possibility of creating music made to accompany natural visual phenomena. She describes a work in progress called “Music for Incandescent Events” that can accompany “light events”, such as sunsets, the northern lights – and live volcanoes. “ I just took a trip to an active volcano in Hawaii, and you can watch lava flowing, but it changes hour by hour, so it would be hard to put the music in a place where its not going to get covered by the active volcano. Unless you put it on headphones. But volcanoes are so profound you wouldn’t really want to add any sonic event to them. We saw a very slow quiet molten oozing lava – and loud tourists! I asked someone to shut up so that I could hear the sound, a really delicate sound, of the crust that begins to form on the hot stuff as its moving – it flakes off the surface from the heat – little metallic sounds. Very delicate.” Still on the look out for some grand statement about nature, the environment and sound ecology, that might explain the way Peebles uses field recordings as raw materials for her Max programming and live, in situ manipulation of samples, I ask her “is all sound just sound then?” “No!” Peebles replies, sounding genuinely surprised. “There’s emotions associated with sound. And memory. Most of the sounds I use I’ve recorded, and I have visceral memories of the sound, the day I recorded it, what the day was like and what I was feeling like. Sound has the capacity to evoke visceral memories.” If there’s a key to Peebles’ work, it’s her ability to place things in relationships with each other: whether they be instruments, sounds, people or media. Most of Peebles’ work is in some sense collaborative, whether it be her work with the excellent Sri Lankan born Canadian mutant Hendrix drone guitarist Nilan Perera as power-duo Smash and Teeny (touring the UK this month), or Cinnamon Sphere, featuring Perera and Korean-Canadian calligrapher Chung Gong Ha, or her recent work with Canadian live video performance duo _badpacket_ , or Cream Test Centrifuge, her collaboration with The Wire’s David Toop, Perera and Canadian composer Darren Copeland. Peebles’ work celebrates the possible relationships between things, wherever they’re from. “I like to watch the stars, I like to listen to insects in the summertime, and I like to sit and watch the clouds. I like to play music. I like to think up music – I guess we call that composing! It’s just an exploration. It’s an exploration to get together with a dancer, to see where that goes. And it’s an exploration to get together with a sunset, to see where that goes too.” Insect Groove has been reissued on Cycling 74; 108-Walking Through Tokyo is out on Post-Concrète; Smash and Teeny will be performing live in the UK in May.

Michael Snow

This was originally published in the April 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

Reviewing, or even getting an overall picture of five highly productive decades of work by 72 year old Canadian film-maker, musician, writer, photographer, painter, sculptor and sound poet Michael Snow, is a daunting prospect. The recent release of a retrospective DVD-ROM devoted to cataloging and showcasing Snow’s work in just about every media known to man, comes as welcome relief to the novice approaching Snow’s work for the first time, and also provides an unusual example of a “multimedia” artefact, whose ability to skip and connect different media is actually warranted, and not just a gratuitous adding on of “interactive” bells and whistles. Digital Snow is built around a database of the Snow’s work that’s composed of 4,685 entries, including clips from his Albert Ayler sound-tracked 1964 experimental movie New York Eye and Ear Control to his recent feature length exploration of digital hyperspace Corpus Callosum. Put together by Montreal’s Daniel Langlois Foundation and media group Epoxy as a part of their Anarchive DVD series, there are recreations of sound, video and other kinds of installation work, as well as several hours of mp3s documenting everything from early youthful versions of Jelly Roll Morton tunes, to Snow’s work with pioneering Canadian improv unit CCMC, to a selection of his solo sound works. Everything can be accessed from a table of contents that consists of a film clip from a Snow film that features – guess what – an actual wooden table, whose “contents”, when clicked on, open pathways through Snow’s oeuvre, organized by theme, or medium. Snow started out as a jazz musician in the late 1940s, playing piano in Toronto based Dixieland and Swing groups. In the 1950s, he began exploring the visual arts, made his first film, and in 1962, moved to New York City with film-maker and companion, the late Joyce Wieland. A chance meeting with free-jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd, and a commission from a Canadian arts agency to make a film that mixed genres, led to Snow’s landmark 1964 film, New York Eye and Ear Control, with a soundtrack (later issued on ESP) by a stellar group including Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Rudd, Garry Peacock and Sunny Murray. The film marks a bold departure from other experimental jazz movies, such as John Cassavetes Shadows or Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, in which the film-makers produce a “Beat” visual experience that matches or imitates the jazz sound. Snow, in what was to become one of his signature styles, places the raw churning sound of Ayler et al against static landscape sequences filmed by the sea, or in New York City, lingering portraits of the musicians, and whirling camera pans. Snow’s work consistently questions the way in which sound and image are associated with each other on film. He says that he “wanted to make a simultaneity of two different classes of things – the image is built around the filming of a static figure placed into live settings.

I thought of that as being something classical. Against that, I put freely improvised, very expressive, romantic music. I put together what I thought of as the best band imaginable – the only instruction I gave was that I wanted it to be all ensemble playing and I didn’t want any tunes.” The follow-up, Wavelength (1967), one of the most celebrated experimental movies ever made, comes as a shock after the ecstatic sound and classical imagery of its predecessor. Wavelength is essentially a single 45 minute shot taken in Snow’s downtown loft, in which the camera slows zooms in on a photograph pinned to one of the walls (the photo, of the sea, can be found on the cover of Steve Reich’s stunning 1970 LP Four Organs, and a euphoric letter from Reich to Snow regarding Wavelength is included in Digital Snow). A sine-wave generator produces a drone-like tone that moves slowly up the scales in a glissando that matches the zoom’s slow focusing, while color tints turn the film into a slow-motion psychedelic experience akin to visiting La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House. Wavelength demonstrates the strange affinity that film and music have, as media that by definition investigate time. “In film,” observes Snow”, “you have a control over duration – which is something that never existed before. It’s like a clock – 24 frames a second. It should be natural to think the medium involves composing with duration.”

By the early 1970s, Snow was back in Toronto, having made several more important films, all excerpted as Quicktime movies in Digital Snow, along with a variety of art projects. At the same time, he pursued musical activities with a group of Toronto improv musicians including extraordinary sound artist Nobuo Kubota and percussionist, with whom, in 1974, he formed CCMC. The group which currently includes sound poet Paul Dutton and plunderphonics master John Oswald, has been a solid fixture on the Toronto scene ever since, organizing the city’s still functioning premiere avant-music space The Music Gallery as a performance place for themselves, and performing with a who’s who of the avant garde including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Misha Mengelberg and the excellent Toronto sound poetry ensemble the Four Horsemen. A recent collaboration with Christian Marclay is captured on a playful recently released double CD put out by TO label art metropole. Fine as CCMC are, Snow’s solo soundworks, which show more directly the influence of his film soundtrack explorations, are perhaps of greater interest. Much of Snow’s work is concerned with investigating the way different artistic media frame perception, through exposing and amplifying particular mechanisms of perception. His 1974 Music for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder, with its speeded up and slowed down piano loops uses recording technology as an instrument, while the excellent The Last LP, a series of recording studio produced fake ethnographic “tribal recordings” sounds like the Sun City Girls minus the guitars. German art label suppose has recently put out Hearing Aid an audio catalog to a recent Berlin retrospective of Snow’s sound installation work, while, Quebec’s Ohm editions has released a 3 CD set of Snow’s solo piano work Snow Solo Piano Solo Snow [3 Phases]. Who – aside from Snow, who in conversation, gracefully and precisely describes each project that he has been involved in – can keep up with all of this? Recently, Snow has begun working with digital media. His 2002 feature length film Corpus Callosum (the title refers to the central region of the human brain which passes “messages” between the two hemispheres) takes a long slow journey around a wired office space as a jumping point for a voyage into a world of mutant digital effects and distortions where bodies and rooms can at any moment melt or disappear. During the private screening of the film that I attended, I became worried that the film was out of focus. Working with the projectionist, we tried to refocus, using a mirror on the wall in one of the movie’s more virtual scenes. At the very moment that we believed we had established a proper focus, the mirror suddenly caught fire and disappeared, leaving us adrift. So it goes – all to a queasy, humming soundtrack of amplified room sound that sounds like a hundred hard drives humming. Corpus Callosum is one of the first artworks that actually evokes what the parameters of the digital world, and its effects on perception are.

“Video in a sense is not optical,” explains Snow. “Video has an inherent instability, alterability, malleability. With digital animation and imagery one can changes shapes pixel by pixel. Film and photochemical photography recapitulate the way we see, especially film. It’s more organic than electronic imagery. We see by light falling on surfaces and they come back to the eye, and film projection is exactly that. Photographing, you’re filming for an eye, and it stays natural, even though it’s natural, because it still obeys the principles of vision, optics, going back to Descartes. Whereas electronic imagery is historically related to radar, in that it makes a reading, a molding of a surface. It’s more like making a casting of something rather than seeing something, the bounce of light. It’s more internally alterable than film ever was, because in a sense it’s constantly in flux and only stays in place long enough to represent this.” It’s this reflecting back to us of the ways in which media impose or call upon very specific conditions and structures of perception that makes Snow’s work so provocative. “Any form of recording alters what it is recording,” notes Snow. “You photograph something, print it and look at it. Well, what was 3D is now 2D. That’s a drastic change, but we’re so used t reading such things that we read right into the realism of it, so we stop seeing the photo and see … people at the beach or whatever. That’s fine. But one thing the arts can do is to bring to the listener or spectator the transformations that have been made. That this is something new – it does represent what you see, but it also has its own character as an invention. I’m interested in drawing ones attention to that as opposed to something more documentary.”

The Digital Snow DVD-ROM is available from www.digitalsnow.org. CCMC + Christian Marclay is out now on Art Metropole. Hearing Aid is out now on suppose.

Global Ear: Marrakech

This was originally published in the August 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

William Burroughs called Morocco’s northern port city of Tangier Interzone back in the 1950s, and described it as “the market where all human potentials are spread out.” Musically speaking, this remains a pretty good description of the Djemaa el Fna (“the place of the dead”), the large square at the center of the southern Moroccan city of Marrakech. Despite its age, in the daytime the square looks unimpressive. A few snake charmers sit under umbrellas, waiting for tourists to come have their photo taken. A heat haze rises off the tarmac. But when the sun goes down, crowds converge on the square and clusters of musicians appear with darboukas, djembes and other drums and chant the songs of the Sufi brotherhoods or Berber folksongs. In another area, the same hand drums are accompanied by a toothless young man on an electrified oud, who thrashes out scratchy Beefheart style guitar lines over the drums. Near the orange juice stalls, an especially large group has gathered around a long haired moustached guy who sits by a drum and what looks like a photo of himself. He is flanked by drummers, guitarists and two banjo players. The young guy next to me says that he is not the same as the guy in the photo, who turns out to be the leader of revolutionary Moroccan-rock group Nass el Ghiwan, who died in a plane crash in the early 1980s. The group plays cover versions of Nass’s stridently political songs, while women covered from head to toe in the traditional manner shuffle sexily to the music. Meanwhile, over by the vendors of love magic and the fortune tellers, are the tape stands, selling the latest Jay-Z or Limp Bizkit next to tapes of Arabic classical music, contemporary Moroccan chaabi pop, while “Arabica” remixes of Oum Kalthoum and Missy Elliott cooked up in bedrooms in Casablanca rock the speakers. Periodically the amplified voice of the muezzin in the nearby Koutoubia mosque cuts through everything. The cacophony, with its constantly shifting performance spaces and amplified sounds marks the square out not as the primitive exotic place beloved of writers like George Orwell and Elias Canetti, who visited in the first half of the century, but as a modern space which sets its own terms – Berber, Islamic, Maghrebi – for the kind of experiment and re-evaluation of values that we normally associate with the modern.
Around midnight the crowds begin to drift off home. It is at this point that the sounds emanating from the periphery of the square catch your attention. You had already noticed the picturesque costumes of the Gnawa musicians, sitting in groups so far towards the edge of the square that they are almost run down by traffic. But the qrakech, the iron castanets that the Gnawa play make a quiet wash of steel sound that requires you to enter the circle for it to make it’s effect. Similarly, the three stringed bass guitar, the guimbri, which the leader plays, is inaudible until you’re close up. But by 1 am, the square is empty except for the Gnawa groups who attract a ragged selection of night owls to their circle. A four year old boy sits on a rag next to me, while a bald hunchbacked man nods to the bass and the chanting. A disturbed man joins the circle, jabbering to himself, smoking compulsively. The castanets set up rippling rhythms until they’re something like a sea of beats, inside of which the guimbri moves, and the chants grow. The Gnawa grow curious about the disturbed man, the music seems to tighten, to focus. They giggle to themselves. His hat falls to the ground, and he takes out his lighter and puts it to his forehead, not, apparently, to set himself on fire, but as though he was trying to illuminate his skull, see through it. The Gnawa are known for their ability to work with the mentally ill during all night lilas, similar to the vodoun ceremonies of Haiti. This is not a ritual in the square, but some small act of exorcism appears to take place. The castanets keep on going. All night long.
The Gnawa, who call themselves “the sons of Bambara” trace their ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa, from where they were brought by Moorish slave traders in previous centuries (Marrakech had a slave market until 1912). Although they are at the very periphery both of the square and of Moroccan society, in recent years, Gnawa has become a part of the global music scene, and its key features – supple castanet rhythms, looped double bass-like guimbri sounds, trance and chant – have mutated into increasingly novel forms. Like reggae, the sound of Gnawa is easily appropriated. A music of gaps, spaces, extended durations, it lends itself to remixes, fusion experiments which “fill in” the “gaps” in the music with dodgy synth washes, Santana-style guitar solos and secular words. The Essaouira Festival of Gnawa, one of a series of annual summer music festivals that includes the Rabat Rhythm Festival and Fes’ Sacred Music Festival, has become the focus of much of this fusion activity. A free and freewheeling event that takes place in venues and on the street around the beautiful coastal town, the festival has hosted guests like Archie Shepp, Susann Deihim, the Orchestre de Barbès jamming with Gnawa groups from around the country. Over 200,000 people attended the most recent festival. Perhaps it is evidence of the Gnawa’s famed ability to manipulate time that cassettes of the 2002 festival were on sale in the square in Marrakech weeks before the festival itself took place.
Collaboration between Gnawas and American jazz musicians in Morocco has a long history. Pianist Randy Weston lived in Tangier on and off from 1969 to 1975, and ran a club there called African Rhythms, where, along with other jazz musicians, he played with a Gnawa master Abdellah El-Gourd, at that time an electrical engineer for the Voice of America radio station in the city. El-Gourd’s home is now both shrine and school for Gnawa in Tangier and photos of Roland Kirk and old Hammond organs intermingle with vintage guimbris and photos of Gnawa masters like Ba Hmid. Weston’s The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco (1996) brought together a group of Gnawa elders from around the country including the great master Ahmed Boussou. Meanwhile, Pharoah Sanders has collaborated with Essaouira’s gnawa master Mahmoud Ghania on The Trance of the Seven Colors (1994), a recording produced by Bill Laswell, who lent his hand to a variety of key recordings of Moroccan music, including Night Spirit Masters, a set of recordings of the Gnawas, made in Marrakech featuring the incomparable Mustapha Baqbou. Laswell also produced the more tripped out sounds of Aisha Kandisha’s Jarring Effects, released on the excellent Switzerland-based Barraka el Farnatshi – a label that continues to pursue strange hybrid musical forms like Argan’s fusion of heavy metal and Berber music on South Moroccan Motor Berber, or the doped out Chaabi-meets-trance sounds of the recent compilation Imperia Consequential.
A number of Moroccan musicians have been producing experimental gnawa. The originators, back in the 1970s, were Nass El Ghiwan, whose Chants Gnawa du Maroc, with its strange sludgy Can-style prog rhythms and intense vocals, still sounds totally fresh. Hassan Hakmoun, who cut his teeth performing as a young man in the Djemaa el Fna and at ceremonies is the best known of the Marrakechi Gnawa explorers. He performed and moved to New York in the 1987 and charted much of the fusion territory back in the early nineties, making the impressive Gift of the Gnawa (1991) with Don Cherry and Richard Horowitz. He was involved in the downtown New York scene, producing funky Gnawa-Hendrix discs like Trance (1994), with his group Zahar, before returning to a more traditional style. A more conventional but equally euphoric funk groove drives Gnawa Diffusion, a Paris based Moroccan-Algerian collaboration that mutates gnawa into 80s club soul. Casablanca’s Dar Gnawa (“House of Gnawa”) rap in Arabic over Gnawa rhythms because “we’re Moroccans, but we’re Africans too”. Most promisingly, Saha Koyo is a collaboration between Hamid Al Kasri and Issam-Issam, two Moroccan musicians playing Gnawa songs on 80s style synthesizers and drum machines that sounds like lo-fi electro jazz.
But again, the most important revisions of Gnawa tradition are not necessarily sonic. In recent years, a small Women in Gnawa scene has developed. One of the great successes of the Essaouira festival has been Hasna el Becharia. Born in the desert town of Bechar on the Algerian side of what is now the border with Morocco, Becharia plays the guimbri and sings. On her first CD Djazair Johara, released last year on Indigo, she plays electric guitar that sounds like a spikier version of Khalifa Ould Eide’s work with that other Saharan diva Dimi Mint Abba. Then there’s B’Net Marrakech (“the women of Marrakech”), five Berber women residing in Marrakech who mix Gnawa with Rai and Chaabi styles. Their newly released first CD, Chama’a features a repertoire of songs that runs the gamut from love to demonic possession to the heroic Moroccan World Cup soccer team. “Gnawa music is only for men, and it takes a lot of courage to break that taboo,” observed one of the group in a recent interview in Globalvillageidiot. “We’re women who love the night time. Something to smoke, something to drink, and we can play for hours.”
Thanks to Gwen Brown, Pat Jabbar at Barraka and Magali Bergès.
Hasna el Becharia’s Djazair Johara is out on Indigo, B’Net Marrakech’s Chama’a is out on L’empreinte Digitale and Dar Beida 04’s Impiria Consequential is out on Barraka el Farnatshi.

Ether Talk

This was originally published in the January 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Visual. Concrete. Sound” announces the sleek, minimalist homepage of UbuWeb, giving little indication of the vast store of sonic, visual and textual treasures that lies within: thousands of MP3 and real audio soundfiles that archive a vast area in the international history of oral and sound poetry, sound art, and concrete poetry beginning with recordings of Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky and Dadaist Hugo Ball (from 1916!), passing through Antonin Artaud’s 1948 radio broadcast, a miscellany of Beats, Lettrists and Fluxus, current Wire obsessions like Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing, to more contemporary sound work from the likes of Vito Acconci, text-sound composer Charles Amirkhanian and Cecil Taylor. There are whole issues of pioneer sound art magazine Tellus, an impressively complete set of MP3s of New York poet John Giorno’s Poetry Works LPs, all unavailable on CD, including the historic Dial a Poem series from the early 1970s and the William Burroughs celebration, 1978s The Nova Convention. And to go along with it, there’s a large, exquisite selection of writings that document the evolution of the sound and concrete poetry worlds.

UbuWeb was begun in 1996 by New York based visual artist, writer and DJ Kenneth Goldsmith, as a side project to a web design business he was running at the time. As the possibility of distributing audiofiles over the internet developed in the late 1990s, Goldsmith’s voracious appetite for burning and ripping obscure out of print vinyl and CDs and posting them online soon overwhelmed even the generous ISP who was donating free server space to him. Charles Bernstein, guru of language poetry at U. Buffalo (famous, amongst other things, for the presence of minimalist Tony Conrad), offered unlimited server space at the university and Goldsmith has made full use of it, making UbuWeb the largest resource for the sound/concrete/poetry nexus on the web today.

Goldsmith, who grew up on a downtown New York sonic diet of punk, funk, jazz and head music, was converted to sound art around 1990 while working in his studio in downtown Manhattan. “It was around the time of the first De La Soul LP, and somebody was walking by with a beatbox blasting and as I listened, it sounded just like music concrete to me. And I thought: wow, someone is walking down Houston Street playing Pierre Henry??? And what I realized was that it was actually a break between two rap tunes. With hip hop, you could take any sound at all, even the most abstract ones, and the minute you put a beat behind it, it’s legitimized. Whereas if you take the beat out, it becomes completely illegitimate and has no place in the culture.”

Goldsmith has made this illegitimacy his modus operandi on his WFMU radio show Unpopular Music a.k.a. Anal Magic, which has become infamous for sonic headfucks like his broadcast of the whole of John Cage’s Indeterminacy last Thanksgiving to New York City. Goldsmith’s own work has walked a fascinating path between concrete poetry, John Cage, and hiphop. At one point, his concrete poems (see picture above) were set to be presented in collaboration with rapper Del tha Funky Homosapien. Del bailed, but the project later evolved into his collaboration with Cage’s favorite vocalist Joan La Barbara as a book/CD 73 Poems. While a lot of language poetry sounds pretty academic, Goldsmith’s interest in hiphop has given his work a vibrancy that’s firmly rooted in everyday NYC language and experience. Speaking of his book No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, a vast catalog of found and processed words and phrases which he describes as “a big rhyming text”, he notes “I was listening to a lot of rap, but seeing the connection between James Joyce and rap in the compounding of words. “Funkdoobiest” could be something ripped out of Finnegan’s Wake.”

Goldsmith sees the web in the same terms. “For a long time, the URL for Modell’s wasn’t modells.com, it was “gottagotomos.com”: it’s out of hiphop culture and it’s out of Finnegan’s Wake. The web is the manifestation in concrete language terms of the meaning of hiphop and Joyce.”

For Goldsmith the future of sound poetry is digital and web-based, because of the access the internet provides to an enormous archive of sound. He walks over to his turntables and puts on Stock, Hausen and Walkman’s “Flogging” from Ventilating Deer complete with it’s sample of Henri Chopin’s sound poem classic “Rouge”. “Everybody’s grabbing stuff from the web, including UBUweb. People are going to be chopping this stuff up and reassembling it. It’s totally thrilling. I hope people are sampling the hell out of UbuWeb!”

Asked whether he’s had any Napster-style problems putting up such a vast collection of proprietary audio material he shakes his head. “If John Giorno called me and told me he was putting the Poetry Works stuff back in print, I’d take it down tomorrow because the job would be done. The distribution for these things was extremely marginal in the first place: mostly they just die, or become huge collectors items. None of the MP3s on UbuWeb are in print. The Henri Chopin all comes from out of print vinyl. I’d never take an in print Alga Marghen record and put it up. I realize there’s no economy there, and I’m not going to take money out of the hands of people that are doing good work. I’ll put up real audio files, but the sound quality there is degraded to the point that it just stimulates sales for the CDs.”

Goldsmith sees UbuWeb (on which he is an anonymous presence, and for which he receives no money) as an example of the way in which the web functions as a gift economy in which low production costs and free distribution make possible a utopian cornucopeia of hitherto unknown experimental richness. “The web is a new way of giving shit away – in a major way. And the web is made for poetry. The avant garde remains the counterculture – non-narrative, opaque, things without beats and stories, things that are weird. As the culture gets more and more oriented to pop, to beats, rhythm and capitalism (R n’ C?), this stuff is just forgotten. There was a moment where the avant garde and the main culture came together in the sixties, when the Beatles were talking about Stockhausen and Cage, all that crossover stuff. The eighties killed it. So this stuff remains as potent as ever. Nobody makes money doing this, so why not give it away? It’s beautiful.”

UbuWeb is at http://www.ubu.com. Goldsmith’s writing is at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/. His musical writings are at A Popular Guide to Unpopular Music at http://www.wfmu.org/~kennyg/.

12k/LINE: Zen and the Art of the Drum Machine

This was originally published in the April 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Minimalism Keeps Getting Starker”, announce the sleeve-notes to Chronologi, a compilation of recordings from the first four years of Brooklyn based Taylor Deupree’s ultraminimal label 12k. So stark that Deupree recently started a separate side label, LINE, with Washington DC based sound artist Richard Chartier to explore mostly beatless realms of virtual silence. Chartier’s recently issued Of Surfaces must rank alongside fellow LINE artist Bernhard Gunter’s work as one of the quietest CDs ever made. For the first two and a half minutes, you think that there’s been a mistake. You check your audio equipment to make sure all the settings are right. Your ears strain to hear something as the LCD on the CD player indicates that track 1 is still in progress. The first muffled bass sounds make you wonder if your speakers are fucked up. The second louder bass sounds at 03:48 make you wonder if your attempts to hear something by cranking the volume up to 10 are now going to fuck the speakers up. An infinitely subtle, almost imperceptible drone starts up. Then it fades again. There’s a surprising level of tension, as you await the next sound event. And afterwards, the effects linger. You hear a drone, a rumbling bass sound, and wonder whether you have left the CD on. It’s “just” a car, or the rain, or the sound of the fridge in the next room. But suddenly you are listening to it. Your ears have received a brief training in sensitivity to the almost imperceptible.
Talking the day before his first LINE CD Series is to be exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, the most prestigious fine art show in America, Chartier recalls that, “as a child I was always mimicking appliances, like the refrigerator. I loved listening to its low frequency hum. I like the subtleties of low or really high frequencies. We live in a culture that’s dominated by information, and information is noise, whether it’s visual or audio. People don’t listen to small things because usually they’re drowned out. I got email from someone in New York saying, “I can’t listen to your music because my environment’s too loud, there’s too much going on.” Most people don’t grow up in a situation where they’re required to listen – so anything small, or subtle or barely there is lost because they’ve tuned it out.”
Chartier and Deupree’s collaboration on LINE, as well as their recent 12k CD After, whose main track was recorded live with Kim Cascone at Mutek, the Canadian sound art mecca, says a lot about the current state of digital sound culture. While Chartier comes from a strong visual arts background, Deupree first surfaced as a member of Prototype 909, a popular early nineties US techno act, famous for their live machine improv rave shows. Deupree’s gradual disenchantment with rave’s beats n drugs culture and his growing interest in stripped down sound is revealed on Chronologi which shows 12k’s development, from early 1997 ambient FSOL-like projects such as Human Mesh Dance’s Thesecretnumbertwelve with it’s 808 rhythms, to the drifting spaces of Kim Cascone’s “Bufferdrift” and the beautiful ambient shapes of Dan Abrams’ Shuttle358. Deupree now says he prefers to perform in gallery spaces: “People have this connotation when they go see you in a club that they’re gonna talk or dance, and I’ve had disastrous club shows where the wrong audience shows up, expecting something else. When you play at a gallery, people are going in with a different idea, they’re not expecting a dance show. But you say club and electronic music and people think techno.”
Both Chartier and Deupree are fascinated by the CD as an object that straddles the visual and audio cultural worlds. Deupree, who designs all the 12k releases, with their elegantly minimal slimline jewel cases, notes that “when I began listening to electronic music in the early eighties, I used to buy records based on their covers, before I was aware of “graphic design”, just because they looked cool. I became familiar with designers like Peter Saville and Neville Brody, labels like 4AD and Factory . When someone compared 12k to Factory, it was the biggest compliment of my entire life.”
Poised between the music and art worlds, 12k and LINE’s “sound art” blurs the boundaries between the two worlds – it’s sold as a CD in record stores, even though the CDs don’t necessarily contain “music”. “We create this work on a CD,” says Chartier, “which has the ability to be purchased and consumed by the public. It’s blurs the line between fine art, something unaffordable which you have to go to a gallery to see or hear, and something that you can take into your home or put on your MP3 player. But if you remove the sound work from the package and the medium of the compact disc, it becomes something totally different.” 12k’s website based mp3 label term. focuses on the ephemeral quality of digital sound, not to mention it’s tendency to proliferate into infinite versions and collaborations. Deupree says that term., which has so far released work by Sogar and Goem side-project Freiband “is the representation of pure data and imageless sound information. The antithesis of physical form … all downloads will be available for a finite period of time only.”
A good introduction to Deupree’s aesthetic can be found on the 1999 Caipirinha compilation Microscopic Sound, which Deupree assembled, featuring stripped down but funky tracks by the likes of Ryoji Ikeda, Thomas Brinkmann and rastermusic founder Frank Bretschneider. At their best, these tracks sound like blueprints for a manual on Zen and the Art of the Drum Machine: it feels like you are hearing an 808 for the first time. Much of Deupree’s work, including Balance his just issued collaboration with Bretschneider on Mille Plateaux, maintains a strongly rhythmic pulse, but one that can be focused on as sound rather than a groove to dance to: “I’m really interested in repetition, so to me an interesting sound is often one that can be heard over and over again. When you hear a sound repeating, a small loop, you often start to hear other things within the sound. The more you concentrate, the more you hear some little fluctuation in the sound that starts to become really apparent.”
Chartier, whose own work is almost rhythm (not to mention sound) free, believes that the computer offers the possibility for new types of minimalist sound: “if you think of the work of people like Reich or Glass, who’ve been designated minimalists, it’s minimalist in a musical sense, but not in a physical sense. To me their work is very busy, active. The advent of digital audio has greatly increased what composers can do in terms of using the aspect of silence as a compositional element. Where it really is silent, not an analog silence that has that hiss. With digital silence, there’s nothing. An absolute zero – no code. My work is really a process of removal. Sometimes a piece will be based on one [looped] sound with things layered over it, and then eventually I will take the original linking element out. So it’s this ghost element that’s not really there. That’s what I like about working with sound as opposed to paint and canvas: especially working on a computer, you can take away sound until there’s really nothing left.”
The 12k. compilation Chronologi is out on Instinct; Cascone, Chartier and Dupree’s After is out now on 12k; Chartier’s Of Surfaces is on LINE; Bretschneider and Deupree’s Balance is on Mille Plateaux. For more information, go to www.12k.com.

Mexico’s Sweet Gold

This was originally written on spec for The Guardian, but not published. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I was sitting in the 20th of November market in Oaxaca, Mexico sipping my post-lunch chocolate con leche when a short, sturdy old man, with skin about the color of my beverage walked up to me. He looked at the foaming bowl in my hand and nodded, approvingly. “In Oaxaca,” he said in a bassy growl, “no coca cola! Only chocolate!” And giving me a hearty punch in the arm, he walked on.

I had came to Mexico in search of chocolate, not gold. When Cortes and the Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century in search of El Dorado, they were surprised to find that the chief coin of the realm in Mocteczuma’s court was not the shiny, precious metal of their dreams, but the beans of the cacao tree. Diaz del Castillo, a soldier in Cortez’s army described how Mocteczuma’s men “brought in cups of fine gold, whith a certain drink made of the cacao itself which they said was effectual to provoke lustfull desires toward women.”
The gourmands of sixteenth century New Spain were less than impressed with the beverage however, and complained about the oily “skumme” which floated on its surface. Nevertheless, they brought the bean back to Europe and by the eighteenth century, chocolate drinking was highly fashionable among the aristocracy of Europe, who sipped the drink out of delicate cups in the mid morning from their beds in Versailles.

Alas, as we know, coffee, tea and the French revolution put an end to all of that, relegating chocolate drinking for the most part to a nocturnal activity for the caffeine-phobic. Meanwhile, the cocoa bean itself was put to other uses, becoming the worldwide number one confection, available in dizzying varieties, from the humblest Cadbury Bar to the dazzling bittersweet creations of the worlds master-chocolatiers in Paris, Milan and Zurich.
On a recent trip to Paris, I had come across a chocolatier in Paris’ chic Saint Germain neighborhood (La Maison du Chocolat), selling exquisite chocolates with Aztec and Mayan symbols carved onto the faces of the chocolate. How piquante it would be, I thought to myself, as I devoured a box with the companion of my choice, if chocolate was still used in Mexico!

A few months later, I was shopping in my local supermarket, when I noticed a that there was a Mexican brand of drinking chocolate lurking in the ethnic foods aisle, called Ibarra. Unlike the Dutch-processed cocoa familiar to most gringos, a brown floury powder from which all the oil or cocoa butter has been removed, this cocoa came in large round coin-like tablets, with the name of the maker emblazoned on them. The cooking method is simple. You scald milk as you would with cocoa powder, break up one of the tablets into small pieces and melt it in the hot milk, drop the mixture in a blender for a minute or two and then serve. Although excessively sweet, I loved the dark, smoky intensity of the drink. Reasoning that if such a product was available in my local supermarket then chocolate drinking must surely be alive and well in Mexico itself, I determined to go on a quest for “el oro dulce”, Mexico’s sweet gold.

On the plane to Mexico City, I was seated next to one of newly elected President Fox’s aides, who nodded approvingly at my half-read copy of Mayan code-breaking anthropologists Sophie and Michael Coe’s True History of Chocolate. Yes, he said, Mexicans are still passionate about chocolate – after all, they invented it. The Coes’ book backs him up. As the plane flew over the vast expanse of Mexico City, he suggested that the best cup of chocolate would be found at the City’s legendary Cafe de Tacuba, an elegant mural and painting covered hostelry near the Zocalo that dates back to 1912.

I enjoyed Tacuba’s elegant, metropolitan chocolate, and the gorgeous environment in which it was served, but I felt that the chocolate was … diplomatic, overly cautious and thus indistinguishable from any other “good” cup of chocolate in the world. So I wandered the city, drinking endless cups of Nescafe like everyone else and looking at the commercial drinking chocolate in the markets – the same chocolate that was for sale in Williamsburg. For succor, I gnawed on a slab of Valrhona cooking chocolate that a chef friend had given me as a parting gift, savoring its bitterness. Where was the real Mexican chocolate?

Driving home from the mariachis at the Plaza Garibaldi one night, a blasting brass band rendition of the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” still echoing through my head, local friends told us about El Moro, a 68 year old chocolateria that stayed open 24 hours a day. Curious, we swung the car around and arrived a little after midnight, to find the large tiled room packed with Mexican families feasting, while the TVs flickered on the walls.

El Moro’s menu is on the wall too. It has only two items: chocolate and churros. Churros, in case you’re wondering, are ten inch long strips of deep fried dough, dusted with sugar – a slender straight donut, perfect for dipping in the chocolate, which comes in four flavors at El Moro: Mexican, Spanish, French and Special. Taking our cue from the Mexican families around us, we ordered a copious spread of cocoa brews, along with a small mountain of churros. The Spanish was an intense, fiercely chocolatey brew, with dark depths in which cinnamon and vanilla flavors rose to the surface, requiring an extra hit of sugar to stand up to the bitterness of the brew. Like many of the other patrons, we requested a jug of hot milk to dilute the brew to the point where it could be drunk rather than eaten with a spoon. The Mexican was similar in style, but sweeter still. I asked the patron, Sr. Francisco Iriarte, why the cocoa was so sweet. He replied that the chocolateria has been in the Iriarte family since the 30s, when they emigrated from Spain, where the custom is to drink it thick and sweet. Personally, I liked the French the best, milkier, not too sweet but packed with cocoa flavor.
Although indisputably a chocolate drinker’s heaven, El Moro’s origins are in Spain – and in metropolitan Mexico City. But I wanted to go back to the time before the Spanish arrived, bringing cattle and therefore milk to mix into the chocolate (a good thing, according to chocolate guru Johnathan Ott, since the milk apparently cancels out the potential carcigenicity of the tannins in the cocoa). So I headed south to Oaxaca.

The chocolate center of Oaxaca is Oaxaca City’s 20 de Noviembre market, where a plethora of market stalls sell the beverage, alongside machetes, marimbas and piles of fried grasshoppers (chapulines). In Oaxaca chocolate is made with your choice of milk or water, and served in a cafe au lait type bowl. The milk drink is familiar to sippers of cocoa worldwide, although somewhat stronger. Great pride and attention however is taken with the foam (or espuma) that tops the chocolate bowl. Although commercial Mexican brands of cocoa like Ibarra advise the use of a blender to make this foam, the traditional way is to use a molinillo, a wooden whisk that looks like a magic wand, which is placed inside the chocolate bowl and spun between the hands to whip up the magic foam. When made with water, as it was in pre-Colombia times, the cocoa flavor comes through much more strongly, and other spices, including chili peppers, are often added to the brew, for balance.

The preferred time for Oaxacans to drink their chocolate is in the morning, at 6 a.m. In a country where the coffee is mostly depressing cups of Nescafe and tea from the tea bush is merely an affectation of the wealthy or of homesick Brits, people get their hit of caffeine from a sturdy cup of morning chocolate, often mixing the chocolate into the corn porridge or atole that is the prefered breakfast dish. While the humble cup of steaming cocoa enjoyed in England and America is relatively low in caffeine, the intensely cocoafied brews enjoyed in Oaxaca are so dense with cacao that you do get a little caffeine hit off them, although theobromine, said to be the source of chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers, is also a mild heart stimulant, giving you a little blood rush something like a sweet, cheap low-dose Viagra.
Ah yes, Viagra. Many people in Mexico told me about chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers in a tone that resembled national pride. Being nothing if not a thorough reporter, determined to bring my finely-honed mind to bear on the problems most afflicting mankind, I was of course curious to learn whether the tales of chocolate’s aphrodisiac qualities were true.

Anthropologists like the Coes are dismissive on this subject, claiming that the tale is nothing more than a colonial fantasy – but theobromine, the most important alkaloid in chocolate is known to act as a mild heart (or blood?) stimulant, and is thus a pretty good simulator of arousal, whether sexual or otherwise. It is of course true that you can buy copious quantities of chocolate anywhere, including your local newsagent, but what with our poor Spanish, the tedium of Mexican TV and the fact that nearly every store for blocks around sold nothing but chocolate, the research team of two in my hotel room found ample time to conduct a thorough study of the issue, and concluded that whatever the anthropologists and psychologists say, chocolate creates a reproducible sensation that for all intents and purposes, is the same as horniness.

Although you can drink chocolate in the Oaxaca markets, the ultimate way Zapotec peasants get their daily dose of theobromine is to buy the raw cocoa beans from the Oaxaca market, toast them, and then grind them in a heated metate or grinding stone. For those people who lack the time (several hours) required to do this but unwilling to embrace the prepackaged products of Nestle or Ibarra, a number of chocolate grinders around the market in Oaxaca will roast and grind cocoa beans for you, in the same way that a good coffee store in El Norte will. These stores exude a powerful smell of cacao that can be sniffed for blocks around.

King of the chocolate barrio is the 50 year old Chocolate Mayordomo, where young Zapotec men and women grind up kilo upon kilo of cocoa for dignified looking Donas and sharp looking young men, in a row of three foot high grinding machines. The cocoa is grinded with canilla (soft stick cinnamon) and almonds, followed by hair-raisingly vast quantities of sugar, producing a familiar looking, but pleasingly bitter (or semisweet) cocoa powder.

Chocolate is in fact a passion pretty much everywhere in Mexico, and traces of its pre-Colombian roots can still be found. A few pounds heavier from all that cocoa butter, but indisputably happy, I still wanted to know the secret of great chocolate. So I asked Mayordomo’s owner,Sr. Flores and his daughter Zoila. They laughed and said “no exist!!!” But on further consideration they concured with Sr. Iriarte of El Moro’s opinion: “pure cacao, careful preparation, and love!”

Badawi: Tomorrow’s Warrior

This was originally published in the January 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

The titles of New York based Raz Mesinai a.k.a. Badawi’s three ROIR CDs Bedouin Sound Clash, Jerusalem Under Fire and the newly issued The Soldier of Midian all take a warrior stance that sounds pretty provocative in the wake of September 11 and it’s aftermath.  The music itself is aggressive too: the first two records filled with righteous nyabhingi drums stalking through digi-dub loops and heavily processed vocals, while Soldier explodes with Middle Eastern percussion, Persian horn samples and dulcimer licks cut up with a major dose of studio tricknology.

Born in Jerusalem in 1973, to American and Israeli parents, Mesinai moved to New York City aged 3, making periodic trips back to Israel.  When he was seven, his godmother took him on a trip to a Palestinian refugee camp on the Lebanese border, where he attended zikr Sufi ceremony led by Sheik Murshid Hassan.  There he first heard the frame drums which triggered a lifelong obsession with rhythm that has so far encompassed Persian, Indian, Yemenite, Moroccan and Afro-Cuban styles.  Time spent with the nomad Bedouin (from which the name “Badawi” comes) in the Sinai desert as a child seems to have infected the young Mesinai with a musical nomad style capable of moving through different terrains without ever losing itself.

Post-punk music from hiphop to hardcore often relies on a rhetoric of violence whose superficiality is quickly revealed in the light of the real thing.  But talking after a weekend that saw a succession of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and renewed threats by Israeli prime minister Sharon against the Palestinians, Mesinai has a more nuanced take on the subject: “War’s something we all have within us as human beings.  The aspect of a warrior changing, a spiritual warrior who for a while killed people and then realizes they can focus in a different direction – that really interests me.  Violence is the easiest way to make a statement, and there’s a lot of lazy people in the world.  But sound can also be violent.  I went to a psychic who told me that in my past life I was a priest who forced everyone to convert to my religion, and if they didn’t I would destroy their cities with guns made of bass!  I was like yeah …. I would do that!  I’m not a completely peaceful person.  I’ve got a lot of hostility to certain ideas and I get mad and I shout.  Music can be that way, and it’s great when violence is expressed in that form.  I was really into hardcore, the more violent the better!”

Mesinai notes that the culture of violence that left the biggest mark on him was that of New York City, where, growing up in the early 1980s, he was also exposed to early hiphop culture: “I was a horrible breakdancer,” he recalls, “but so into it, it was like angels to me: amazingly spiritual, like a trance ceremony.”  Mesinai also wrote grafitti, using amongst others the tag of Scriabin, the great Russian composer.  Turned on to dub through his love of the instrumental side of electro, he formed SubDub with John Ward and became part of the downtown NY scene around DJ Spooky, Olive and Byzar that was given the tag of illbient for a period in the mid nineties – a label he says that was as inevitable as it was meaningless.

Mesinai says he remains interested in dance music, especially now that New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has made dancing illegal in most of the city, but he has also pursued a parallel career in modern composition, culminating in the recently released Before the Law in the Radical Jewish Culture series on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, a set of soundscapes inspired by Czech Jewish modernist writer Franz Kafka.  The tracks combine strings, percussion and piano into moody, short, Zorn-like blocks of sound that capture the mood and pace of Kafka’s writing.  Mesinai, who is also a writer, dates his obsession to telling musical stories without words to time spent studying as a child with New York orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a master storyteller who dramatized his tales with a guitar.  He’s put out several other pieces of modern composition including The Heretic of Ether, a CD which landed him a gig contributing to the soundtrack of horror film Hellraiser 6, along with his own tripped out imaginary darkcore soundtrack The Unspeakable.

Although Mesinai’s work has strong connections to Jewish tradition, he’s emphatic about the universal nature of what he’s doing: “Badawi means “desert dweller”.  I wrote it as “Badawi” because I wanted to keep it universal, open, like William Blake, as opposed to any particular tradition – a friend from Korea says the word means “over water”.”  Perhaps because of the rich complexity of his background, Mesinai has managed to avoid making a “world music” that just pastes together different musical styles in an exotic way.  Noting that Kafka wrote his novel Amerika without ever actually visiting the continent, he views his own work as being based on the universality of sound, and of human experience.  “Badawi is about whatever influences I’ve had in my life.  I want to perceive not even in a musical way that all people are vibrating, making these sounds in this desperate way, all over the world.  I’ve heard a lot of music and grown up around a lot of types of music and started seeing resemblances.  When I DJ, I’ll take a ska track and some Hungarian gypsy music, and discover that they’re both making similar sounds, with rhythms going umchuka umchuka.  And that raises the question: what’s going on there? Rather than forcing Hungarian music to sound like ska, it just does sound like ska and vice versa.”

Technology, used Badawi style, provides a set of experimental tools for opening lines of communication between different sound cultures from around the world, without smoothing them down into one bland “global” style.  Walking across town to his DJing gig, we discuss our mutual enthusiasm for American composer Charles Ives, who Mesinai notes was “sampling” American military marching band tunes and folk song and mixing them up in modernist compositions at the beginning of the twentieth century.  When Mesinai spins, the resulting noise is often similar to Ives’ exuberant, aggressive clashes of styles, but with the emphasis shifted from melody to rhythm: tabla throwdowns melt into Garvey’s Ghost and King Tubby, Moroccan gnawa, Nuyorican percussion workouts and tracks from Soldier of Median, polyrhythms crashing into one another like waves.  It’s an intensely joyful sound, even if it predictably sends East Village cocktail sippers scurrying off to the bar.

Mesinai, who is marrying fellow turntablist/composer Marina Rosenfeld (see Wire 213) on December 30, continues to work with decks.  In the works for 2002 is a CD for Tzadik’s Composers series of string quartet pieces, which includes his String Quartet for 4 Turntables, premiered at Lincoln Center last year with DJ Olive and Toshio Kajiwara.  Mesinai doesn’t subscribe to any traditional dichotomy between technologically and traditionally produced sounds.  “I always start with acoustics.  I believe that energy has to be put into the music, you have to be moving, you have to put energy in through the instruments.  The problem with electronics is that often you’re not putting enough energy through – you sit there more, you type.  Turntables are actually the closest thing to a live instrument, and energy can be thrown through very nicely.”

Even if, as philosopher Paul Virilio says, war is the essence of technology, Mesinai remains optimistic.  “You need to know your enemy, and befriend him,” he says.  “If my enemy is electronics, then I need to befriend it.  That’s what the Badawi project is about.  Machines processing traditions.  When I was a child, my mother used to take me to the Sinai desert and I used to have these Japanese Transformer dolls that can transform into insects, they’re these machine robots.  So I’d sit out there in the desert, and there’d be Bedouins, and I had to entertain myself so I’d take out these Transformers and start up these total battlefields and I think of that when I do a Badawi track, these Transformers duking it out in the desert.”

Raz Mesinai’s Before the Law is available on Tzadik; Badawi’s Soldier of Midian is out on ROIR.

Jon Hassell: There Was No Avant Garde

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

I spoke to Jon Hassell by telephone last summer on a bright summer morning, while I was living in the Catskills, surrounded by huskies, cats, lumbering bears, Sufi gurus, and other types of beings. Hassell was very open and direct, curious and human, obviously still very moved by memories of time spent with Pandit Pran Nath. If you listen to his early records, like Vernal Equinox, Possible Musics, Aka-Darbari-Java and Dream Theory in Malaya, you can really hear the fruit of his study with Guruji – it’s all meend, all bending, curving glissandos, morphing shape and pattern. It’s a mistake to interpret Hassell’s work of this period as some kind of post-modern collage of styles. He’s trying to explore or create places where different methods of making music converge with each other, not through the sentiment of some kind of World Music, but experimentally, with the idea of Universal Sound always present to encourage exploration and affirm the possibility of communication. This remains a challenge and a goal worthy of aspiration to today. This interview in Perfect Sound Forever will give you a broader sense of Hassell’s history, while the Jon Hassell Power Spot has discographies, background on Fourth World and more. David Toop’s thoughtful piece on Fourth World from The Wire is also recommended.

JH: When I ran into Pran Nath, it was at a certain point in the development of my musical signature. I was not so well-formed as Terry and La Monte. I always felt I was slightly privileged in that my musical style was still in the process of being formed, and therefore I could weave it into my own particular blend of things whereas with Terry and La Monte, the influence came at a different angle.

MB: Can you trace out what the transition for you was when you studied with Pran Nath?

JH: To me it was an introduction to a microworld of connections. He didn’t normally allow people to record lessons but he did allow me to record one or two and I probably wore out the pause button on my cassette player, just going through and making sure I was picking up every note that was being sung. For me that was a complete revelation. Coming into it from an educated Western point of view listening to Indian music you hear the ornamentation and … from the outside, it’s like a child listening to Indian music trying to imitate it and going (imitates “snake charmer” music) without knowing what’s actually there. It was such a revelation to me, to see that there was this background grid on which these arabesques were being traced – and how it extended the range of possibilities that had been laid out for me in Western musical training.

MB: And you didn’t find that kind of nuaunce in jazz?

JH: What it revealed to me was that jazz was a subset, a “raga family” … because there were a fairly limited set of intervalic variations. But because raga is all about shape-making, it turned me on to seeing African and African-American music, every music through the lens of that shape-making ability. The “calligraphy in air” aspect was such an immense revelation for me. When you hear Pran Nath singing the beginning of a raga and after 15 minutes you realize that he’s only touched on the first three notes, then you see how much is lacking in the western system: you know, here’s the C lily pad, here’s the C sharp, the D lily pad … leaping from pad to pad in that mosaic way, ignoring the connective tissue, the shape making that’s possible between these pitches, which opens up an incredibly vast territory of thinking about music. But, coming in when I did, I didn’t leave anything out, it wasn’t like I had time to become the world’s greatest raga trumpet player and tour the world playing classical raga. I wasn’t 21 when I started studying with him. And that idea, “oh isn’t it quaint how the elephant can dance the ballet,” is somewhat limited … the “trick” of playing something on an instrument that’s never played it before. I mean it’s a cool thing to do but it was out of reach for me … and it just didn’t appeal to me so much. I couldn’t leave behind all the other stuff that I was interested in … Electric Miles Davis … “On The Corner” is the record I always cite …. I had to incorporate all these things I loved into what I did. I tried to open myself to all of it. Certainly the biggest single factor in my development was coming into contact with Pran Nath.

MB: So raga provided the grid for fusing whatever needed to be fused.

JH: It was a window through which I could see other things. The last record I did – Fascinoma – has two Guruji tamburas on it … it’s like a return to my first record Vernal Equinox, on which the raga influence was more prevalent. It’s all one microphone in one church space, no sleight of hand editing of the tape. I also allowed myself to play things I’d never allowed myself to, like Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. Having an appreciation for the shape making ability of raga, led me to finally see things like Johnny Hodges, the alto player with Duke Ellington, who was famous for all these swoops and curves … and a singer like Jimmy Scott, anyone who shaped a music that way … It was a lens through which I started to see things in my own culture from a different angle.

MB: What is lacking in the raga worldview, in terms of envisioning your own music and what you want to do with it? What did you most want to add or incorporate?

JH: A kind of earthiness, an urban quality that you find in the African American approach to things – that synthesis of high and low, that was brought to things by Miles, among others. That was the part that I had grown up on. The things you’re impressed by when you’re in your formative years are going to stay there forever. So it wasn’t likely that I was going to don a white cloth and go off into the mountains and deny whatever it was that made me thrilled when I heard a magic chord progression or some beautiful Brazilian song. Even though raga is definitely sensual. I always talk about the realization that all the other so called classical musics in the world are sensual as well as structural. In Western music it’s often been reduced to something simply structural and the sensual part is often underdeveloped. It’s that combination of structure with sexiness, to use the word that’s lurking behind this talk. Think of Indian classical art with it’s refined sensuality, in which there is no difference between spiritual and sensual. Speaking of it from a Western point of view we always say, well you take a little of this and you add a little of that, but the real story is that sensuality/spirituality is a completely organic thing, there is no separation. In fact, one of the ragas that Pran Nath told me about, the lyric, maybe Lalit, was about girls holding hands, dancing in fields of flowers, they’re like garlands of flowers themselves. This was of course related to the love of God. But that whole ecstasy, from high to low, and the beauty of the girls, the deep spirituality of it, is all clustered together in one concept. The language is not made for speaking about these things. You have to be very careful, otherwise you fall into a trap like wrapping up a sentence with “a concept” – that’s not where it is! It’s pre- and post- “concept” …

MB: Which is what allows it to fuse at many levels, right? Is it hard for you to think of Pran Nath’s singing as sensual?

JH: No, not at all. If you think about the curves, the motion of his hands in the air, he could be describing a Marilyn Monroe shape.

MB: Did he talk much about that?

JH: No. I just knew it was there. He certainly appreciated women and had a healthy libido. Everyone will agree. He had a twinkle in his eye. I always felt that was one of the sine qua nons of music …

MB: That it had that sensuous, incarnate quality …

JH: Yes. And without that it becomes dry and intellectual. In fact I’ve been collecting notes for a book, the title of which is The North and South of You, as in the Cole Porter song. It’s basically about this Western dysfunction between the North and the South, not only globally speaking, but bodily speaking. The equator is the belt line …

MB: It’s a fine idea. Although in the last 30 years, maybe there’s been a kind of global warming that has changed some of this?

JH: Not really. It’s on everybody’s mind of course. The tensions that arise from this imbalance are expressed every place. The public manifestations of the consciousness of it is much greater than before. But it’s still operative. The worldview of Northern people who don’t have a great relationship to the Southern parts of their body is still the one that prevails, and that’s the one that’s causing all the trouble. There’s not proper respect for the “gifts of the South”, shall we say.

MB: I started a book that would be a personal erotic history where I would go through every erotic moment of significance in my life, and use the word “erotic” in the broadest possible way, so that it could describe all kinds of forms of sensuality …

JH: That’s what’s included in this book. The subtitle is “An Erotic Worldview”.

MB: Most of the books that have been written on this subject are pretty disappointing. And very few are written by white men. The few books that are out there that are any good tend to be written by women.

JH: Sounds right.

MB: My feeling is that the “erotic” world dissolves the more you look into it, and enter it: it exists as this powerful heightened Southern world so long as you’re not in it. But once you’re in it, it’s intensity turns into something else, and that’s what interests me the most now.

JH: Maybe you’re speaking of this state of grace that I mentioned in the raga sensibility, in which everything is fused so that it’s impossible to separate. That’s probably an ideal.

MB: Yeah, you’re left with something that could become anything. The erotic is left as a connective tissue.

JH: Well, it’s pretty fundamental. Everything that happens comes from that connection. The erotic experience of sliding down the uterine canal … that’s a fairly good hint as to what we consider fundamental. I view it as a fact of animals who have become so abstract that they’ve lost contact with their animal origins and therefore separate everything into “us” and “them”. Some humans have stayed closer to that, and are … quite “amusing” to northern people who go on vacation to the South. But their world view is not respected enough to be seen with the same weight as the classical Northern view.

MB: I guess we should return to Pandit Pran Nath.

JH: Oh, I don’t think we’ve ever departed (laughter).

II

MB: When and where did you study with Pran Nath?

JH: I’d just come from studying with Stockhausen for 2 years in Germany and I was new to this whole minimal idea. I was in Buffalo with Terry and played on In C … It must have been ’73, ’74 that I actually moved to New York, and started playing with La Monte – that’s when I came into this sphere, being around him and playing in the Dream House, listening to those overtones and intervals magically connecting, often on some hashish cocktail.

MB: Just from seeing a video of Pran Nath, I got a strong smoker’s vibe …

JH: Not him. The Indian thing is … bhang grows alongside the road there. When you’re studying and living in the forest, and it’s music music music all day, the first thing you touch when you wake up in the morning is the chillum. Those things you see in those classical Indian paintings … ladu, little balls of bhang and almond paste … To write a history of music without that concept of ecstasy, of intoxication, is to write a history of the world without noting that it didn’t take place in the glare of electric light.

MB: And it’s a history of embodiment, of relationships with nature, connections with the divine through nature, through material processes.

JH: Right.

MB: But Pran Nath was not particularly a hashishin.

JH: Not really, that was more the Dream House. Doing those long sessions and tuning up those intervals. I’ll never forget that.

MB: One of the things that’s said about hashish is that it allows a micro-perception of intervals …

JH: I’d say microworlds rather than microintervals. La Monte talks about this … listening in the present tense. And also vertical listening. As opposed to listening to a line unfold in time, you’re presented with a timbre and you scan the timbre up and down vertically and listen to little areas. I did a piece called Solid State while I was in residence at the at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, at SUNY Buffalo, which can be seen as an attempt to bring into the audible range that overtone area – bring it into a more fundamental range, then carve away at it with sequential filtering. That was all coming out of my experience with the Dream House and Terry Riley – we did his In C there. I used to present it as a sound sculpture in museum spaces. It was working with this idea of a block of sound, but I added a kinetic energy to it through sequential filtering. The concept was like beginning with a piece of paper that was all black with pencil lead and then making shapes on it by erasing.

MB: So you were mixing this live?

JH: Yes. Although the fundamental piece was done on 2 track tape. We did it at the planetarium in Amsterdam a few years ago, which turned out to be the perfect place for it!

MB: So when did you actually formally study with Pran Nath?

JH: There was an intense period of study when we were both in New York in 1973, 4. I began studying just by singing, and shortly after I started playing trumpet. And I had to forget everything I knew about playing and really learn to play the mouthpiece instead of the trumpet. The trumpet is a glorified bugle. It’s made to touch wide intervals until you get to the upper partials … by the way, some people think that’s the theory behind those high Brandenberg Concerto trumpet parts… I had to find a way to make the meend – which I tried to do by trying to use the lips as a secondary voice, as if transferring the vibration point from the vocal fold to the lips and thinking of it as a conch sound, blowing primitively into it and making the pitches with just the lips and the resonating chamber. I had to blow across the normal overtone “notches” and, as a result, the sound became quite fuzzy and vocal. That was a pleasant side effect of attempting to make the meend happen.

MB: Were you involved in other musical projects while you were studying with Pran Nath?

JH: No. I left for California in 1975 … I went through a lot of personal stuff … which was all part of the birth of what I’ve called “Fourth World”. I was just practicing with my raga lessons and my pause button. I lived in a little place in Malibu near the ocean and I’d go up into the hills and practice and try to make those curves. I basically studied “Tilang” for two years or more … and just the alap … I never really got beyond it …

MB: Was “Tilang” a raga that Pran Nath particularly taught?

JH: It was certainly special between him and me. In India, that’s what I was working on. Whenever it would come on the radio and he started to sing a bit of it outside of a lesson, I knew he was still teaching me.

MB: How many times did you go to India?

JH: Just once.

MB: Any particular memories?

JH: Just the ecstasy of being there in the temple. I think La Monte and Marian were staying in the temple, my then girlfriend DeFracia and I were staying in a hotel down the road, and we’d come to the temple early in the morning, and Swamiji (Narayan), Guruji’s spiritual guru, he was there. I remember playing on the roof for him. He came up and sat and listened to me, with these brilliant eyes shining and smiling, seeing what I was doing on the trumpet. We would go to the market, buy two ladu … it made the day go like … water! I was often on ladu, and listening to the children sing, the arti bells clapping, the swallows overhead, the muezzin singing from the minaret nearby, I mean it was total ecstasy, it was so beautiful.

MB: Sounds like a fourth world foundational experience right there.

JH: Totally. Totally.

MB: What did people there think of you playing the trumpet?

JH: They just accepted it. There was even a fabled trumpet player spoken of there … I mean they use clarinet in those wedding bands. It wasn’t like oh my god you can’t do this …

MB: But most people studied singing with him …

JH: First I started vocal … but then I started transferring it to trumpet.

MB: Did he ask you to do that?

JH: No. There was a festival that we did in Rome in the early 1970s. La Monte was doing a Dream House, Guruji was singing too, and I was warming up in the space one day, playing some pattern, and Guruji picked it up and started singing it and running rings around it and I thought, why am I not studying with this man? I’d seen him perform for months or maybe a year before I decided to study.

MB: Did you formally become a disciple?

JH: Not formally. I was always on the outside a little bit. I profited from that in some way. I think he respected where I was and respected the slight distancing. Too close to the guru you burn up, too far away you’re too cold. I always felt there was a nice blend of master, pupil and friend.
MB: That’s the sense I have from almost everyone I’ve talked to …

JH: Yeah. Terry and I when we see each other, we think about how he would laugh. Oh ho ho. just to say that … He’d come across a beautiful thing or a beautiful girl or a beautiful vista. And he’d say “oh ho ho!” in a special way. It was more beautiful than I can … as you can tell I’m starting to mist up over here!

III

M: My feeling is that all the action is in that middle space where things are mixing and fusing. Hungry Ghost will be devoted to this issue of fusion, tradition and experiment in contemporary culture.

JH: Find another word for fusion! That rings a bell and Pavlov’s dog comes out, dripping.

MB: You start using words like matrices …

JH: (laughing) No, don’t do that either! I try to cultivate a very direct, extemporaneous manner … try to say things directly without going into art critic speak. Try to say the thing in the most direct way, avoiding words that push people’s buttons and cause them to slam the door shut as they read.

MB: Yeah, part of Hungry Ghost is about discussing spirituality and the sacred in modern culture, and those are two more words that you can’t really use or wouldn’t want to use. So the whole venture is about inventing a space or vocabulary for things that we’re unable to talk about without the associations being so heavy that people are turned off or think they already know what’s gonna be said.

JH: Wordism is what I call it. Here’s something I wrote about it: “the words are all on a transparent film. the experiences to which they refer are taking place seamlessly behind the film overlay. the words are like digital samples of a continuous analog experience. if you focus on the word-film, the experience becomes a blur, the way that focusing on an insect on your car windshield prevents you from seeing the road in the distance clearly. Preverbal experience of primitive people takes place entirely behind the overlay or rather without it. Early verbal cultures see the word and the thing which it names in somewhat equal focus, connected by an invisible membrane. Later verbal cultures come to see only the verbal overlay, with a vague blur of experience behind. As Homo sapiens lives ever more in the realm of symbols the membrane connecting thing and symbol atrophies. Discourse becomes a same-symbol with-different-underlying-meanings/same-meaning-with-different-underlying-symbols quicksand.”

MB: That was part of what my book about drugs was about. I wanted to reconfigure the idea of both drugs and literature, since they’re both actually types of embodied experience. The particular ways in which modern people relate to the notion of embodiment and how they think culture relates to that idea, completely determined the fate of drugs and literature in our world. There’s no such thing as “drugs”, there’s just a set of attitudes and laws, in which these things appear which we call drugs because they set off a certain set of alarms, desires, fears …

JH: Exactly. “Intoxication” is a word I use to jump over “drugs”. And to say that intoxication is the fourth drive, along with sex, hunger and thirst. Intoxication is essential as any of those. It’s a primal need, which expresses itself in various ways, sanctioned or not.

MB: To what degree did your thinking about preverbal culture evolve through studying with Pran Nath?

JH: Well, as far as the fundamental root is concerned, it’s smack dab in the center. The collision of my western training with this raga culture, which is a complete embodiment of sensuality and structure … like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, where the game was a combination of all science, art all in one thing. If anything came close to that it was raga. And who knows that art? Who would have the knowledge to understand how many things converge in that, being able to summon up the memory of this particular calligraphic event or situation. See the language breaks down into scientific stuff. Raga is like this smoke in the air which presents the listener with the feeling of being in a dream which imparts knowledge all at once. It reminds me of Terence McKenna’s saying that drugs are chemical gifts of the gods … it’s almost like a printed circuit, or an operating system that you may as well consider sacred … the chemical result of a plant that allows your brain to receive a certain kind of knowledge all in one swoop.

MB: And that raga is another way of addressing that circuit … and that concern with mood in the raga is that preverbal experience of knowledge.

JH: Right, all imprinted in the person who has opened their receptors enough to have the whole picture come in.

MB: To what degree do you feel that Pran Nath knew what he was doing?

JH: Well, he wouldn’t be able to talk about it as I am now. Even though he could say it in his own way. But being of one world and being acquainted with others, it’s become quite important to me and I’ve focused a lot on trying to say things like this in a language that might be understood by other people.

MB: Did he comment on your music?

JH: Actually, yes. “Graduation Day” for what I was doing was when I played him a track off Possible Musics called “Charm” in which I’m doing a lot of meend, a lot of shape making. It’s over a kind of tambura. I felt that everything I did was a way of transforming the basic structure of the raga situation: there’s a solo in front, there’s a background grid, the tambura, and I just said OK, let’s smear this image up a bit, let’s not use the traditional way, let’s do it another way, try this one, try that one, that’s where it all began, and you extrapolate from there … just like a painter would, start with a set of assumptions, limitations etc and paint your way out of them, and back into them, and then out of them again …

MB: And you played “Charm” to Pran Nath?

JH: Right. He said “This is good”. So that was a big moment for me. That he could actually see how something could be taken and how his art could be absorbed and translated in another way. In the same way that raga itself has always depended on personalities – maybe the variations between singers in a tradition is much more subtle – but still it all had to do with personalities, saying “I like the way this sounds, this makes me cry” … that must have been a part of …

MB: But this was about more than personalities. He must have been aware that his closest American students were musicians who were involved in a very different kind of music. And yet he himself seems so traditional. Did he have aspirations for his music?

JH: No, I don’t think so. I think he just did what he did. And was certainly expansive enough to understand how things grow and don’t stay static. But as for his own work, in the same way that we’ve said that sensuality and structure, or spirituality and sexuality, can be bound together, that they’re not separable, you could also say that for him forward and backward were also the same. There was no avant-garde. Except that probably while we were lying around listening to his music, as all sensitive musicians would, he probably understood what things we were really getting off on. and “played to the crowd” I hope. And if you’re not “playing to the crowd”, what are you doing?

MB: Do you think he spelled an end to minimalism? Basically after meeting him everyone went off and did something else.

JH: It just opened a wider panorama of possibilities. To a certain extent it took some of the wind out of the sails of a particular way of thinking about things. In other words, there was something better to do than that. My definition of minimalism is keeping one thing constant while other things move, and that generalized notion could be applied in many ways, including raga.

Charlemagne Palestine: Searching for the Golden Sound

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

bethdavidsinging 2I spoke to Charlemagne Palestine by telephone, he in Belgium, in New York in the summer of 2001, after his return from a trip to Iceland. Palestine, as he himself says, met Pandit Pran Nath outside of the circle of musicians and composers associated with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, although his work is animated by a similar interest in minimalist strategies for composition and improvisation, and a concern with the transcendental qualities of sound. If you don’t know Palestine’s work, his interview with Brian Duguid should set you straight. For myself, I’ve never witnessed any of Palestine’s legendary live performances, but I love the CDs of Strumming Music, Schlingen Blangen and Karenina, each of which overflows with euphoric intensity. In conversation, Palestine’s voice has an extraordinary musical quality, full of spaces, half finished phrases that convey his meaning musically and poetically, always feeling their way beyond the words.

MB: How did you first meet Pran Nath?
CP: It was at the end of the sixties … I was living on the upper west side of Manhattan in a neighborhood that was known for jazz musicians. A neighbor of mine told me that he’d just heard this incredible singer, and he invited me to go hear him. I’d already sung Jewish sacred music as a child, and was already excited by all kinds of music. So I went, and I heard Pran Nath sing, and he was great. He was looking for students, as where he was staying was only 7 or 8 blocks from where I was living on the upper west side, he was living on 95th Street with two disciples of Baba Ram Dass. So I started to work with him. Immediately it went very easy, since I came from a background of Jewish sacred music, especially his kind of chanting, my voice adapted very well. Within a few weeks, people sometimes mistook me for him. I was a young kid. I mean I was imitating the timbre of his voice, not that I was a great Indian singer. At the beginning, when you learned with him in those days, he tried to help you find the sa. Like the om, the do in Western music. He would do amazing variations on this [sings sa in very PPN way], and then you’d learn the scales. I’d already learnt that in music school … I’d been searching for a sacred sound in Jewish music so it came very easily to me. I was about 20 years old …
I studied with him for a few months, and he taught me how to use the tambura, and we’d sing sa and the different notes. He asked me if I wouldn’t be his disciple, which meant spending much much time with him. And at my age, it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. So at a certain moment I stopped working with him. But for all the following years, because sometimes I had political musical problems with the other generation, Pran Nath always included me in every situation where I was there. He always waved to me – though I never sang to him, and it was clear why, because the idea of giving a commitment and finally the amazing commitment that La Monte, Marian and Terry gave was something I could never imagine giving another person. But this link came because of the sounds themselves and my tradition, I started as a singer, not a keyboard player or composer. I started in music as a singer. And my relationship with synagogue singing. And this put us on a level of very powerful musical communication, which was great. I know he was disappointed, and somewhere, so was I, but even now … some people say my music is very meditative or centering … but all the guruisms and gurujiisms … that kind of giving your life to another culture like India … though I had many dear friends who were great musicians, and we can even say holy men from India, from Africa … I loved all that stuff … But as my culture had disintegrated as a tribal culture, a Jewish New Yorker in the late sixties is not in a Hasidic community, I was already too worldly, too restless to want to return to a foreign culture. But he never excluded me. When there were problems and because I could be a very disruptive person when I felt cornered, he always took my side by including me in the family even though I was the prodigal son who never finally did spend those kinds of years which his technique and his position and Indian music and dance demand. It demands daily commitment. It’s not something you can do just like that.

MB: What do you think you learnt from him?
CP: I’d put it more sociologically. There was a great division in my childhood between Oriental or I should say Jewish Oriental sacred music, classical music, jazz, rock … everything was separated. What he brought by coming to America and by inspiring a bunch of people like Jon Hassell and so on … all of a sudden you have a whole bunch of guys, I mean La Monte is a Mormon, Terry Riley’s an Irish west coaster, I’m a Jewish New Yorker … at that time we were very conscious of being a very un-tribal culture, meaning that we were all searching for a kind of identity … all was possible but all our family and tribal units our own born tribal units had disintegrated into an American pablum, and so it was hard to say who you were if you were American. What his being there helped me to feel was that I was continuing the chant of the synagogue, and along with his chant …we were all part of some larger force that was coming of age, that would then create a kind of world … even now the audience of young people who listen to my music and get it astounds me … in those days there were so few people who got it. And people were so fragmented … you were either in this kind of world or that kind of world … so his being there and attracting so many people and his coming from such an ancient culture … was a very powerful social force, bringing this ancient tribal tradition, which musicians like us had lost touch with, certainly white musicians.

MB: What about this tradition was important that it should manifest in the west?
CP: Ooof. It even happened with Merce Cunningham or John Cage …. at a certain moment, we were given all the freedom to do what we want. I went to conservatory, and there were people I met, and even now there are people who spend their lives from the time they’re 7, 12 hours a day developing a musical tradition – piano, voice … it’s a paternal or maternalistic system … ballerinas for instance … so it’s not like you wake up in the morning and you’re the king of your own world and you invent your own music. It’s something that came out of the western [classical?] idea … but at a certain moment you wake up in the morning and you say: well what the hell do I want to do?? That system that came from an ancient place where there’s already this hierarchy where you don’t have to think about what to do for years and years, maybe for 30 years you won’t have to think about what to do because there’s someone above you who will show you, who will mold you, who will inspire and guide you. And that aspect of guruisms that I used to criticize I understand because there were many very interesting and intelligent people who felt that need. That was one of the things that drugs tried to … that’s why someone like Richard Alpert becomes Baba Ram Dass … he too was looking for another force bigger than himself to show him some great magic in the world that he could no longer do by himself. That’s maybe what psychedelia was about. That you took some kind of another force, whether it was a human being or a drug which … you were no longer the top of your heap … you were more like a leaf in the wind where somebody else took care of the power structure. And that I think was somehow very important in those times. Especially … for a lot of white people … although I’m Jewish I lived in a white society … but because I was born in a culture that’s not exactly white through and through, so I had this ancient link … maybe you have this still in Ireland … but in America we’ve lost that. Maybe in the UK you still go to a place and ancientness is still there. In Iceland, they arrived in 900 AD, but when I watch them and see what they do … 900 is not such a long time ago. That comes out of the simplicity of a tribal culture. Iceland is a modern culture, but it’s a very tribal culture.

MB: And it’s to do with discipline … discipline produces a kind of authentic experience?
CP: … And it lets you know that carrying on a tradition is OK. That you don’t have to be an iconoclast every day, you don’t have to destroy what was there yesterday. I was brought up with that notion of genius: that you do something that nobody else did and you try not even to do what you did after awhile otherwise you’re already finished. Which is the contrary of the oriental tradition where you make more and more perfect the tradition which goes from generation to generation … and certainly he was the incarnation in this time of a very ancient tradition. So he was him, but he was also an entire culture.

MB: Are there particular works of yours, where you do see the resonance of your studies with Pran Nath?
CP: Well, Karenina is an easy one. That came out just after his death. Schlingen-Blangen is a kind of sa piece. It’s not sung, it’s sung by an enormous instrument, but it’s a way of humming in space … but in a funny way my teacher Sebastian Engelberg, Austrian Jew in the opera tradition, died quite a few years before, that’s why he became my teacher … he was looking for the golden sound. The whole concept for me of the golden sound was the sa of Pandit Pran Nath.

MB: The sound that contains all the possibilities of sound?
CP: Yeah – and the search for this perfect sound. And the pure voice without anything else is the most intimate and expressive sound that a being can make. If its an animal, their screech … the bark of a dog … for me there’s nothing more intimate, and the essence of the animal or the being is the voice. Even though I did many things that were not the voice. But I started with the voice. And he was the voice.

MB: But even your non-vocal drone pieces …
CP: Yeah I see them as taking that ideal and putting it in another context. In my sense I don’t know what that perfection is. Finally I do it in a very sort of Jewish way … searching, neurotic, schizophrenic, frenetic, sometimes calm sometimes chaotic, searching for this perfection … a way that’s kind of Kabballic … something unattainable … it’s not like a beautiful smiling Buddha on a mountaintop somewhere. Meaning, for somebody for me.

MB: It’s more of a struggle …
CP: Exactly. And he was a struggling man. He loved his whisky …

MB: I heard he had a taste for Chivas Regal …
CP: As did my father. As do I! (laughs) Sometimes to very cataclysmic extremes. On that level I also touched with him. Though we didn’t discuss it.

MB: Did you have a sense of what the struggle was about?
CP: A sense of what the struggle was about … well … life is a struggle! Certainly when you’re in a tradition like that, with a continuity, with that as a center, a pole to secure yourself from the winds that can throw you from side to side … and the creative process … someone like him was not just a good virtuoso singer … because also in India you find people like the Dagar Brothers who are fantastic virtuosos. And maybe also because he also was out of his culture too he rarely went home, he preferred to be in the west. As we were tormented by being a lost culture looking for our roots, he was tormented, being from a culture with enormous roots that he could no longer socially live in as a normal member of. He had a lot of ghosts and angst that in traditional Indian society were not looked well upon. But he wasn’t the only one … I met others … and you see it with jazz musicians too … they gave all their lives to their music, and their personal lives were less ecstatic than the sounds they made and they suffered from all these questions and problems dealing with that, as many artists do.

MB: Right. You see it in a lot of the spiritual teachers who came from wherever they came to the west in the sixties and seventies too. Moving to the west and taking on that sort of rootlessness was something very painful.
CP: It makes me think … the difference between drinking in a culture and drinking like that is that you’re alone. In Greece, even in French families, there are thirty of you and you’re drinking for a festale, a marriage. You’re all together – it’s not lonely. But then you come to another culture, and it becomes a lonely kind of task, and that creates another kind of alcohol.

MB: It’s said that Jewish people are less susceptible to alcoholism because they tend to be raised in families where alcohol is used in a social context, and it’s much more integrated into their lives.
CP: In my family that was the epoch when my father drank with his brothers and cousins and his Chivas Regal was a social drink. I drank with him at the table for shabas, we drank together. But when I came of age, that community no longer existed. My cousins had moved, they had become Americans and there was no longer this community. But the alcohol stayed! (laughs) It’s funny, you called me at the hour when I have my aperitif – I’m drinking my Johnny Walker. My wife knows it’s like a sacred hour of the day for me. When I start my first whisky. I used to drink sometimes at any time of day. Now, after six … so if there’s anything I need to do that needs a certain precision or objectivity … but then I try to drink pleasantly, to enjoy it … and in these years I’ve come to enjoy alcohol.

MB: Were there specific pieces of advice that he gave you?
CP: No. We never spoke like that. It was always in the sound. He always had me sing. He just looked in my eyes … for me he came from a tradition in sound that was the closest to anything that I could have imagined … I sang with some of the great singers in Jewish tradition, they’re the equivalent of Pran Nath for the Jewish faith. They’re not rabbis, though they can also be rabbis … they studied, they learned the books and became learned men, but they were the men that sang to God, and for the people in all the traditional rituals. And I studied with several of them – with them, because often a young boy would do duets with them, never a girl … and even with them our relationship was totally sound. So we did very little talking except to say, you’re out of tune duh duh duh … and it was through the sound that we communicated … and with him also that was true. I sang so easily his style. That’s why people thought I sounded like him, because I could imitate the sound. Not him of course, but the sound. The sound was easy for me.

MB: Were there works where you were formally concerned with raga like structures?
CP: No. I’ve never been good at … in western music, in eastern music, I’ve always been kind of a poetic deadhead … I’ve never been good at the mathematics. I could just sort of get it! I was in the conservatory for five years to keep out of the Vietnam war … I learned certain techniques, but I never used them. They were just something I learned because they exist. Interesting to analyze. But I always learned everything by ear. I loved the sound of those words. Like in Karenina I invent ragas and words that could mean something … I always have the dream that some day someone will listen to them and know exactly what they mean because it’s their language. Like when I was in Iceland, they have such a special language and everyone understands because they speak the language, but when you’re a foreigner, it just sounds like you’re muttering and sputtering all these strange sounds and that I love! (laughs) That’s the level I love, that mysterious sputtering and juttering in a language. That’s what it was like for me to sing with him. Like re ne na … (sings)

MB: You have that solemn quality in your voice that he has …
CP: I had it in five minutes. As soon as I met him, he looked at me with those eyes, those sad eyes and his teeth, one tooth a little bit off, when he opened his mouth it wasn’t perfectly symmetrical, it was a little bit off and I knew exactly how he felt because that’s how we sing in Hebrew singing … you cry and you do these lamentations. It just was so easy. It touched something very ancient. About the man … on the planet … blah blah blah!

MB: When you were working with different ethnic musics, did you come to feel that there were particular ways of doing it or ways to avoid or did you just go on your nerve?
CP: Sometimes I feel like I’ve been too floating … a whirlpool of wind and water … but I’ve never been able to decide those kind of questions. They seem to me something very untouchable. Some deep part of me feels they shouldn’t be touched. And then there are other people who actually do set up these systems and they work. Even for ballet, they’re magic when they work, yet they come from a lot of repression and discipline and ego battling. But I’ve never been able to … so I’ve always kept outside. And that’s what keeps me the prodigal son. Even in this story, I’m on the outside. I use what I use and I do what I do. I’m sort of an uncle, I’m not a father. I’m just my own asshole … going through my day. I try to be the best possible asshole I can be!
Photo: Palestine at the Beth David Cemetary in Long Island, NY in 1996. Photo by Irene Nordkamp.