Low End Theories

 The latest issue of The Wire has an excellent section on bass in contemporary music and theory, which includes two pieces from me, one on UK soundsystem Aba-Shanti and their heavy vibrations, the other on the deepest bass sound in the universe, emitted from a black hole.  I also suggested a piece on the humming sounds of Putumayo shamanism, as described by my friend and teacher Michael Taussig, and the following piece about plumbing sonic mental depths, as described by another teacher of mine, Sri Karunamayee:

“In an interview conducted in Delhi in 2001, the Indian singer and philosopher Karunamayee, a long term student of Hindustani raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, teacher of La Monte Young, Terry Riley and many others, explained to me how she first learnt to sing: “At the age of six, good teachers were coming and teaching my brother and sister.  But I was very small and it was not considered necessary for me.  But I had a gift.  Whenever I heard some music it just became ingrained in me.  My consciousness of silence kept my slate very clean.  Most of the time I enjoyed the silence, even when everyone was talking, I felt a kind of echo of the silence, as if I was in a tunnel, untouched by any of it.   Whatever I heard was imprinted, and I found myself singing in that way.  Nobody cared.  I would just put my head down and start going sa-re-ga-ma.  Sometimes I would hear my sound very clearly.  I would think: it may be that my sound is not heard, but I can think of music!  And holding that thread, not of the sound that I’m making, but of the concept of sound, with that I would go up the scales for many octaves.  And then I would say, alright, let me come down, keeping the thread, and I would find my voice becoming audible, very clear, and then deep, and then less clear, more unheard, but I could go deep also.  This was my favorite exercise.  I would go higher and higher like the birds at noontime in the sky.  Then I would imagine that somebody is taking water out of a well. You can go as deep as you want.  There is no limit on either side, up or down.  So I experienced infinity in height and depth through sound and silence. It gives you control over your mind. A thread of sound. “

Catherine Christer Hennix Update

Photo by Laura Gianetti.

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

Arthur Russell and Buddhism

I’m just finishing Tim Lawrence’s excellent biography of Arthur Russell, Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992. In some ways, New York in the 1970s is starting to be very well charted territory, but the complicated web of connections between different scenes which is described in this book is still news, and Lawrence draws out these connections with the same loving detail he brought to his first book, Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. The book nicely complements the recent compilation of Russell protégé Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra – a group that variously featured Kathy Acker on vocals, Laurie Anderson, Rhys Chatham and many others. I think Lawrence underplays the breadth of the “mutant disco” scene – there’s no mention of Ze Records, the Bush Tetras, Arto Lindsay’s various dance projects – but maybe Russell’s path somehow didn’t intersect with “punk funk” or the other post-new wave styles that were floating around when I first visited New York in the early 1980s.

One of the surprises the book contains is that Russell was a committed Buddhist.  Russell was turned on to Buddhism in San Francisco in the early 1970s when he was involved with a Theosophical sounding commune called Kailas Shugendo, and then with a Japanese Shingon priest Yuko Nonomura (Shingon being an esoteric form of Japanese Buddhism with similarities to Tibetan Vajrayana).  After that he appears to have made his own way, supported by friendships with Buddhists such as Allen Ginsberg, who Russell performed with and lived in the same building as for decades.  He was either incapable of orthodoxy or uninterested in it: his Buddhism more like the “spontaneous Beat zen” of the early Beats which, as Hakim Bey argues, was arguably more true to the core of Buddhist thought and practice than the more orthodox and technically authentic versions of Asian religious traditions which dominate in Europe and the Americas today.

It’s still kind of shocking to read that Russell’s early disco masterpiece “Is It All Over My Face?” was produced according to Buddhist principles:

“… Arthur planned to record a song that bubbled with the earthy, collective spontaneity of the dance floor …. In order to realize this goal, Arthur decided to run the recording sessions as a live mix and knowingly fell back on the philosophy of Chögyam Trungpa and Ginsberg, who argued for the poetic value of unmediated inspiration and lived according to the maxim “First thought best thought.””

Recording sessions took place on a full moon, because that “is a time of celestial energy, productivity, and ritual.” Definitely a key event in a generally still unwritten history of queer post-hippie spiritual practice.  And although the goal of such recording sessions was generally to produce a capitalist commodity, i.e. a 12 inch single, the situation is more interesting than that kind of crude summary. For one thing, Russell was notorious for playing with time in the studio and most of the recordings he made were never finished, let alone released. As with Jack Smith’s endlessly respliced movies, Russell made rhizomes of sound that seem to have been an end in themselves. For another, the tapes produced in these recording sessions were often played at places like Nicky Siano’s Gallery or the Paradise Garage without ever being officially released, in the same way that Jamaican dub plates allowed for dancehall transmissions that would often simultaneously be kept a secret by not being labelled and packaged for the marketplace.

When you start to look, a lot of Russell’s songs have obviously Buddhist lyrics. The pre-François K version of “Go Bang”  starts with the lyric “Thank you for asking me questions/you showed us the face of delusion/ to uproot the cause of confusion”. While the famous chorus line “I wanna see all my friends at once/I’d do anything to get a chance to go bang, I wanna go bang” is usually interpreted as celebrating an orgiastic dancehall sexuality, it could just as easily be talking about the Bodhisattva’s vow to bring all sentient beings together to perfect enlightenment.  Nor is there necessarily a contradiction between the erotic and Buddhist meanings of the lyric since in Tantric Buddhism, bliss is an aspect of the realization of  emptiness or sunyata.  Russell’s dance music has a peculiar suppleness and flexibility, it feels truly at ease and open, always morphing in unexpected and delightful ways – listen to “Let’s Go Swimming” some time – and that is how the greatest Buddhist teachers I’ve met have felt too.

What could, would or should a Buddhist music sound like?  Maybe the question is meaningless: a number of  Buddhist artists who I’ve talked to about the relationship between their work and their Buddhist practice have bluntly denied any connection between the two, even when their music or paintings or poetry are full of explicit references to Buddhist ideas.  Generally such people embrace Buddhism as a traditional practice that is self-sufficient and separate from other aspects of their “modern” lives.  “Buddhist music” then would be something that sounds like music associated with a particular Buddhist tradition or culture. But that then suggests that Buddhist culture is somehow frozen within a particular set of historical forms which it must dutifully repeat in order to appear authentic.

There have been a number of interesting books about Buddhism and the poetic avant-gardes, but Buddhism and contemporary music has barely been thought about.  Maybe it’s because John Cage captured the brand of “Buddhist composer” so early on, although as La Monte Young once noted, “John Cage dipped into the well, but how deep did he dip?”  I love Cage, and I happen to think that we have yet to find out how deep he dipped, but it’s true that his version of Buddhist music is just one version, with very particular musical decisions built around a particular set of East Asian Buddhist histories.  Philip Glass seems to me a great Buddhist in terms of his support of a community of musicians (including Russell), but his music comes from other places.  Although she denied it when I asked her about it, Eliane Radigue’s drones, with their emphasis on slow transformation of tonal combinations feels very meditative, and her collaboration with Robert Ashley on the life of Milarepa is stunning,  reading the Tibetan saint as an old-timer in a American western. Ashley himself references Buddhism often, and his use of vernacular conversational lyrics in records like Private Lives and Automatic Writing (two of my favorite records ever ever) has an openness and spontaneity whose sources are surely  in Cage, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and other practitioners of Buddhist inflected “spontaneous bop poetics.”

But Russell doesn’t really sound like any of these composers with the possible exception of Ashley.  Maybe Ginsberg’s musical adventures such as First Blues, which Russell actually plays on, were important.  Don Cherry was making a similarly eclectic Buddhist music throughout the 1970s, blending rock, and electric African sounds with Tibetan Buddhist chanting on records like Brown Rice and Relativity Suite.  While Russell is fearless in moving between genres, he also displays a kind of warped respect for the fragile construction of those genres – which is why I was able to hear “Go Bang” for the first time in a Soho London nightclub full of strictly old school funk freaks. I think Lawrence does a great job of showing how an ethics of openness and spontaneity are expressed in Russell’s music, and in the ways that he imagined his music being used socially, to break down barriers between scenes, styles and so on.   As with John Giorno’s poetry, there’s a non-coercive opening up of mental and physical spaces through montage and repetition.  You don’t need to know that “this is Buddhist music” because that labeling  would reify what’s going on and turn it into a mere idea of Buddhism.   The “logic of sense” is loosened up in a melodic and rhythmically disciplined way — and that’s how the joys of the dancehall and the recognition of emptiness resonate.

Carnival Folklore Resurrection in the Age of Globalization

This was a talk given at CTM Festival‘s STRUCTURES NODE 1 – Global Alchemy event. (For more talks, click here.)



I should begin by saying how relieved I am to be here in Berlin, and to have had the chance to witness the performances of Group Doueh and Omar Souleyman last night. I’ve been writing about SF for a number of years, and in the back of my head there has always been this nagging fear that possibly Alan and Richard Bishop, those “cameo demons” .. that “box of chameleons” … those “great North American tricksters” to quote some old Sun City Girls titles, have actually been secretly cranking out the music of the entire Sublime Frequencies catalog themselves in a studio in Seattle, and making asses of people like me who believed that this music actually existed out there in the world! Now I know that at least some of it is true … and maybe that’s enough, because I think that’s an important part of what SF is about: throwing us into a situation where there are no guarantees, no experts to sort things out in advance, and where we have to make up our own minds about what we value, what we like or care about. And we have to keep our wits about us … I’d say that this is already what “carnival folklore resurrection”, this marvelous phrase that the SCGs coined for a series of reissues of some of their more obscure recordings, is about. No one goes to a carnival worrying about authenticity. You know there are all kinds of tricks, projections, illusions, fascinations and dangers at work, but you let yourself go a little, and you let yourself be taken in … and that is where what in America is called “fun” begins: monstrous, cruel, ecstatic, cheesy. But then … what if the whole world turned out to be a massive carnival like that? What would you do? Go home and get a PhD on carnivals … or take a ride?

Folk and “Sub” Cultures

I want to begin by talking about folk cultures. The German philosopher Johannes Herder coined the term “Volkslied” (“folk song”) in the eighteenth century and produced a two volume collection of folk song lyrics from around the world, but there have always been folk cultures, usually existing in the shadow of kings, churches, rulers of various kinds. The peasantry, out of necessity, out of the fact they owned little or nothing, found “unofficial” ways of making, distributing and sharing things – like songs for example, or recipes or spells. They developed particular collective techniques for producing these things – appropriating, cutting and pasting, transforming whatever came to hand, what anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called “the science of the concrete”. Then industrialization came along and with it new kinds of “official” distribution networks – the capitalist marketplace, copyright and intellectual property law, and the Romantic cult of the individual artist, who at the same time, sold his or her work in the marketplace like any other worker. At that time in Europe folk cultures apparently disappeared as autonomous entities. They were appropriated and represented as reified kitsch symbols of the nation-state. On the left such reified kitsch versions of “folk” were rightly seen as fascist manipulations, but the left also embraced industrialization and the transformation of the peasantry into the proletariat. Marx wrote dismissively of the “lumpenproletariat” – the hustlers, tricksters and others on the margins of industrial society who could not or would not work in the factories. If Mike Davis in his recent book Planet of Slums is to be believed, people in this situation now constitute a majority of the world’s citizens. Such communities of the marginalized or disaffected today appropriate industrial imagery and technology just as they did the official imagery of the church and crown back in Medieval days. Music, which is a peculiarly slippery and autonomous kind of human expression, is of great interest to such communities, and probably always has been, since it is very difficult to turn music, or more generally sound, into private property. The recording industry in the twentieth century was a sustained attempt to do this, but looking around today, one has to say that it has not entirely succeeded. And conversely, it is possible to make amazing music even if you have no property whatsoever.

In Europe and America in recent decades, we call such folk cultures “subcultures” or, in Spivak’s phrase “subaltern cultures”, but these are unfortunate words since, although such cultures may be subordinate to the dominant system, be it feudal or capitalist, they have their own value systems, their own way of doing things. The great graffiti artist Rammellzee lamented the fact that in the early 1980s, graffiti crews, who established their sovereignty over the city of New York by writing burners across entire subway trains, traded this sovereignty for “subculture” and a chance to participate in the international art market. Of course, the sovereignty of graffiti crews is a complex issue.

Today, “subcultures” including “indie”, “alternative” and “hip-hop” have allowed themselves to be appropriated into mainstream consumer culture to a point of almost total co-optation, and I think there’s good reason to resist that kind of label and the politics that goes with it. Instead maybe we could talk about Industrial folk cultures, a phrase I take from Ian Penman who, in a review of Public Image Limited’s Metal Box in 1980, observed that Public Image were making a kind of industrial folk music. In the 1970s Kraftwerk also claimed that they were playing “industrielle volksmusik”, providing one of the links to what is now known as industrial music, as well as perfect beats for Afrika Bambaataa. Henry Flynt’s vision of an invigorated “American ethnic music” in which hillbillies appropriate tricks from high culture to add to the power of their own music, or The Fall’s “prole art threat” are also part of this. A certain aesthetics of failure, indifference, idealism or perversity in relation to the official marketplace is one of the characteristics of the participants in such cultures – “the curse of the Fall” and the rest of us too. There’s nothing too pure about any of this: it’s not about authenticity or benevolence – participants in folk cultures steal other people’s styles and incorporate them. They are suspicious of art, and often see themselves as workers for hire, even when this work requires a high degree of aesthetic or technical sophistication. And they’re often tangled up with gangs, mafias, grey markets, who are pretty ruthless about the bottom lines of power and money. But so long as the current economic system exists, so will the particular forms of activity of industrial folk cultures too.

Carnival Folklore Resurrection

I bring all of this up because the Sun City Girls’ enactment of a “carnival folklore resurrection” which has evolved into Sublime Frequencies’ presentation of otherwise unheard global popular musics is also about a vision of a transformed lumpenproletariat, peasant, folk culture, punk rock, anarchist multitude. From the earliest days, they’ve been singing “folk songs of the rich and evil”, extending the analysis of global capitalism and American chaos that Beat writers like William S. Burroughs began, and which was such an important reference point for punk. Many of the current activities of the Sublime Frequencies collective have their genesis in the Sun City Girls’ travels around the world and their affirmation of nomadology as spiritual and political practice and the discovery of what Hakim Bey called temporary autonomous zones – spaces of freedom and ecstasy — through music. Highlights of the prehistory of Sublime Frequencies in this regard include Alan Bishop’s discovery of radio montage in Morocco in 1983, which led to some of the most interesting SF releases including the amazing Radio Java; the cassette Libyan Dream, reissued as part of CFR, which was originally issued as a limited edition of 50 cassettes which band members inserted into the stalls of street cassette vendors around SE Asia in the early 1990s. In a sense, SF now reverses this gesture, inserting a variety of musical cultures and practices from parts of the world that have been written off by the US post 0911 (remember that SF has produced disks from many of the “axis of evil” countries, including North Korea, Syria, Libya) into the dwindling CD racks of European and American record stores, and the post-Pitchfork mediascape. And then there have been moments of spontaneous collaboration or incongruous performance. For example,, during travels in Indonesia in 1989. In the words of Erik Davis:

“The Girls were on a boat, heading through the Strait of Malacca on their way to the Sumatran city of Medan. With nothing better to do, the trio asked the boat’s lounge act to hand over their electric instruments for a set. The band ripped through what one might could call a “typical” Sun City Girls set: “House of the Rising Sun,” “Esta Susan En Casa?” from Horse Cock Phepner, and a sun-baked skronk-jam peppered with abrupt stops and starts. The Indonesian audience clapped at the beginning of every song, and then clapped again at the end. Like nearly all Girls performances, this one was recorded, and Rick reports that at one point on the tape you can hear a patron lean over to his companion and proclaim: “Ah, this is American jazz!”

Sublime Frequencies has brought an anarchic punk ethos to their productions, but with a twist, for the gestures of negation that they make are not merely ritualized acts of dissent from their own society, but aim at producing a shock of surprise, of direct experience or apprehension of other cultures. The use of montage, of appropriated cassettes and LPs, of field recordings of radio broadcasts all involve this strategy. SF has gotten a lot of criticism for some of this since at times it’s meant that they’ve issued music without being able to credit the artists or pay them (most of the radio CDs are like this) – and they’ve been accused of repeating the colonial appropriation of traditional and indigenous cultures through their own privilege as American traveler/tourists. And it’s true that hegemonic appropriation of folk forms has been an issue from the endless theft of American Blues music by white rock groups, to the bootlegging of reggae and African music. But the other side of this is that folk cultures are continually engaged in acts of appropriation too. On the sleevenotes to SF’s “Guitars of the Golden Triangle: Folk and Pop Music from Myanmar”, we read that the recordings distributed by street cassette vendors in that country are considered public domain and duplicated at will. The blues appropriated British and Irish folk forms, as well as a variety of West African musics; reggae evolved out of distorted New Orleans radio music, which evolved out of military marching bands etc. Some of the appropriations are made from other folk cultures (for instance across the African diaspora) and others from the cultural dominant. Without the universality of appropriation, there could be no such things as folk cultures, nor could there be any possibility of cultural communication. Yet appropriation is also clearly an imperialist and capitalist modality – and a communist one too. This is the problem! As Alan Bishop said when Erik Davis asked him how to play the gamelan sitting in his studio:

“My philosophy is that there is no set way to play any instruments,” he told me. “Obviously there’s a sense of respect for how to play something like the gamelon. But to give in to that respect you don’t do right by tradition. Tradition is not about slavish imitation. The last thing I want to see is a bunch of fucking white guys playing Javanese gamelon proper. It’s disrespectful. They are being disrespectful because they are not evolving the situation. They are not rolling the dice. They are copying, just following somebody else’s rules. That’s not what you find in these situations.”

Contrary to stereotypes of the timelessness of folk creatures, you can only be true to folk tradition when you appropriate.


An Indonesian guy on a boat to Sumatra calls what we’re talking about “American jazz!” I’m going to call it “ethnopsychedelia”. It’s not like he’s wrong and I’m right, or vice versa. I wonder what kind of constellation of musics he imagined when he said “American jazz”? In terms of music, there are a number of idioms, plateaus, spaces, styles or sites that make possible a global exchange between particular folk cultures. It would be interesting to come up with a full list of those styles and the way that they have been passed around. Probably the most well known one is the Afrofuturist vision – the merging of traditional African rhythm and ritual with cutting edge electronic technology cooked up by George Clinton, Sun Ra, Afrika Bambataa and others, which formed the basis of hip-hop as currently practiced in Colombia, China, Senegal, Turkey, not to mention Texas, London or Paris. Maybe this is what was meant by “American jazz”?

Less well known, but of equal importance, is Afrofuturism’s Asiatic, frazzled Other, Ethnopsychedelia. Equally reliant on the use of technologies of amplification and distortion, the term Ethnopsychedelia brings together musicians around the world, whether living in so-called traditional societies or the most modern, who share an interest in what Mircea Eliade, in defining shamanism, called “techniques of ecstasy”. Rumanian scholar of religions, Eliade, writing in the 1940s, before the explosion of psychedelia, added the word “archaic” to indicate that this was all happening long, long ago. But the presence of an Ethnopsychedelic musical culture around the world, in Morocco’s Nass el Ghiwane as much as Amon Duul I, in Acid Mother’s Temple as much as the Sun City Girls, suggests that headz around the world don’t give a damn what kind of technology it is, so long as it allows them to produce enormous, sprawling, feedback-laden resonant dronescapes and raga-like jams, that all aim at producing an altered state called ecstasy. And just as the Afrofuturists appropriated machines to turn up the funk, so Ethnopsychedelia uses machines, pharmaceuticals, light-shows to the traditional arsenal of hypnotic tribal rhythms, drones, raga-like modal repetition, and direct lyrical invocation of deities, in order to bring about these ecstatic states. The closest to a philosophical discourse about this has come from Henry Flynt’ who in his 1980 essay “Meaning of My Avant Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music”, says he wishes to hijack the tools and techniques of modernism and put them at the disposal of an ethnic music whose goal is visionary states of elevation.

I use this word ethnopsychedelia to point to the continuum between traditional trance-inducing musics, such as North Indian raga, Moroccan gnawa or Javanese gamelan, and contemporary psychedelic culture. This continuum becomes apparent when you consider the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who Brian Jones amplified and echoed into a global psychedelic experience in the late 1960s, or La Monte Young’s amplified tamboura recordings of Pandit Pran Nath, or Ravi Shankar’s extraordinary 1960s raga explorations, which sound like “Eight Miles High” period Byrds (or even Husker Du!) for the reason that Shankar must have heard lots of psychedelic music, just as the Byrds undoubtedly listened to Shankar. The more we find out about the 1960s, the more it seems that almost every geographical region of the world had a psychedelic scene that brought electrical instruments together with traditional songs, scales, rhythms: we knew about Brazilian Tropicalia or Turkish psych, but who knew about the importance of Hendrix in Burma or Benin and Togo or Chile or the Tibetan exile community? The complex narratives of migration, exile, transfer, which have been enacted often under the most brutal conditions of political violence, have also resulted in this sound. Questions of cultural authenticity, of who stole what, or where this or that originated, entirely miss the point that musicians and audiences, wherever they’re from, who love ecstatic musical experience, want that experience to be as intense and powerful as it can be, and will use whatever tools they can get their hands on to achieve this. And that this may be as good a reason for gathering together, for becoming part of a collective or community, as we can find.
I use the word ethnopsychedelia to affirm the connection and continuum of certain practices that are usually kept separate. Traditional societies, in their encounter with modern technology, often abandon their own musical forms and goals for a blandly homogeneous modern “global” sound, when there is no reason that cutting edge technologies should not be adapted to their own cultural goals and forms, aside from the dubious benefits of assimilation. Contemporary European and American musicians, who get high on indisputably potent technological quick fixes which wear out so quickly, refuse to learn from the enormously rich and complex world of traditional sound cultures, and the ways in which it allows a deepening of musical practice and experience. I use the word ethnopsychedelia to imagine some other kinds of sideways futures that seem otherwise impossible. In the words of Bruno Latour, we have never been modern, there is ultimately no separation between us and them, but rather a vast chaos of constellated human possibilities and boundaries. Not just one universal folk mythos that is endlessly the same, but “the changing same” of the human condition.

Sublime Frequencies is a gesture of affiliation which perhaps began as an attempt to preserve archives of popular musical material that no one else seemed to care about outside of the particular ethnic group that produced it, but it is evolving into something more active and future-oriented as we can see with Doueh and Souleyman. This is not just about preserving the past but about presenting some possible futures. The impasse of music in an age of endless recycling of a very narrow repertoire of European and American musical styles evokes the problem of the political today: what, other than capital, is the basis of us gathering together as a collective of some kind and hanging out together? My friend the New York poet Sparrow once told me that his Indian Marxist guru had told him that communism would collapse first, then capitalism, and then finally all the world religions. What would be left? Music perhaps … folk cultures for sure. What would it be like if music was the organizing principle of society? We don’t know, and in a sense, it’s a matter of inventing a new kind of collectivity, imagining it, as a way of helping it come into being.

Can the Subaltern Kick Out Killer Psych Jams?

The question of how different cultures communicate with each other is a major political question at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Gayatri Spivak has undertaken a rigorous critique of the conditions under which cross-cultural communication happens in the age of globalization. She is particularly concerned with the situation of subaltern cultures, which she locates in the “global south” and she describes their situation very well: that in the transition from traditional society, often without the already problematic framing of nation and state, to a global economy whose terms are dictated by the culturally dominant US and Europe, or by a nation state that doesn’t really recognize the existence of their cultures (I note that both Group Doueh and members of Omar Souleyman’s group belong to stateless ethnic groups). She notes the one way status of communication between imperial center and subaltern regions. Thus Alan Bishop writes that when he’s in Morocco in 1983 recording and editing the radio montages that became Radio Morocco, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is everywhere. Bishop’s montage subtracts the global dominant from the radio-scape to reveal what else is going on there.

One important phrase of Spivak’s is “without guarantees”. I think Sublime Frequencies would like to present the music that they are interested in without guarantees too – specifically the guarantees of academic ethnomusicology that treat music like an object of scientific description, and the guarantees of corporate/national “world music”, which are capable of turning any musical tradition into the same safe digitized slop that is the sign of a modern consumer society. But also without a guarantee of political correctness that, as Alain Badiou notes, claims to protect the rights of the Other, while in fact making sure that only those Others who are already the same as us are accorded any respect, while those who are not are dismissed in advance. How do the highly specific local folk musical traditions translate? What’s interesting to me is that Omar Souleyman makes a music in which the ability to name and sing about those in the crowd for whom you’re are performing is really important. What happens when he doesn’t know the names of those in the crowd, like last night? And when the crowd can’t understand the words he’s singing either? Apparently quite a lot can happen, as we saw last night. Of course, we should all learn Arabic and Souleyman could also learn our names. But the radical potential of music consists in inhabiting a space together for an hour or two in an intense and joyful way in a situation where it is never certain what the words mean, who it is that is performing and who is in the crowd. It takes a lot of work to set up situations like this, but what happens then, happens without guarantees, and the fact that it can happen should amaze us.

Spivak speaks of the difficulty of learning from precapitalist formations, while helping “insert them into lines of mobility”, and of allowing other pasts, other languages to arise within the global dominant. She notes that this doesn’t mean “learning about cultures”. “This is imagining yourself, really letting yourself be imagined (experience the impossibility) without guarantees, by and in another culture, perhaps. Teleopoiesis.” (52). Teleopoiesis is a term coined by Jacques Derrida. It means calling forth something, allowing it to come into being, in a place or time that is different from the one where you find yourself, without knowing in advance whether it can even happen. It is an act of making, but also necessarily involves the agency of those who might receive, who could understand, or who will appropriate that which is made and sent without guarantees into an unknowable future. Spivak observes that perhaps all poiesis, all making, is teleopoiesis. Music is an eminently teleopoietic medium, and contains the radical potential for being heard, being received across time and space, to a degree that is hard to imagine in written or spoken words. With music one can address an unknown group of people about whom one knows nothing and who know nothing or little about us. Of course we know that this makes music a powerful affective tool for constructing and manipulating national and other solidarities, but it also opens the possibility of other kinds of universal – for example, ethnopsychedelia. In this situation, it is not necessary (or even desireable) that one word like “ethnopsychedelia be accepted by all involved, or that the same value be attached to the tropes of the music by everyone. It is necessary and desireable to “evolve the situation”.

Why is it so easy to respond to music? What is its connection to hospitality, to gift giving, to the various ways in which we are able to welcome those who we do not know? Remember that both Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh perform principally for regional weddings and that their music is involved in producing friendship, familiarity. Talk of the politics of music can get very cheesy very fast – think “We Are The World”, surely the great anthem of globalization! – but isn’t it this intimate link between music and gift, hospitality, prestige even that still makes it possible to value music in a time where we don’t find much to value? Not to mention the importance of words like “glory” or “splendor” or “ecstasy” or even “joy” – which are all connected to ethnopsychedelia and the unfolding of the potential powers of music at significant moments in people’s daily lives.

Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, translated by Peter Hallward (London and New York: Verso, 2001).
Philip Bohlman, World Music, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2002).
Erik Davis, “Cameo Demons” at http://www.techgnosis.com/scg.html
Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London and New York, Verso, 2006).
Henry Flynt, “The Meaning of My Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” at http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/meaning_of_my_music.htm
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia UP, 2003).

Four Seismic Musical Events

This was originally published in the March 2007 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Ustad Hafizullah Khan, Hazrat Allaudin Sabri’s shrine, Dehra Dun, India, February 2001

The idea of a live performance not intended primarily for human ears is a powerful one – and many religious traditions value the idea of singing for God. In the Sufi temples of India and Pakistan, the main sound played in the courtyard is qawalli, ecstatic vocals backed by harmoniums and hand drums, popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also sang at all night sessions at Sufi shrines. Hazrat Allaudin Sabri was a fourteenth century Sufi master (founder of the Chishti-Sabri branch of Sufism) said to be so intense and austere that the only person who could stand near him was his musician, who sat with his back to him at some distance, so as not to be scorched by the master’s vibrations. 600 years later, Sabri’s shrine is still a very intense place, the shrine itself full of men praying, many of them in states of ecstasy. I visited the shrine with several masters of the Kirana gharana (Pandit Pran Nath’s gharana) to whom the place is sacred, including the late Ustad Hafizullah Khan, khalife of the gharana and a master sarangi player, and the remarkable singer Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan. It was mid-day, we sat in the courtyard, a crowd gathered, kids, old men, everything between. The singing began, not qawalli, but Hindustani raga music, and the crowd listened. Hafizullah’s son Samiullah began to sing and it pierced my heart, a beautiful pure tone. I looked around and saw that I wasn’t alone. The atmosphere was one of intoxication, tears, drunkenness, a world turned upside down but gently so. I saw a man do a backflip while pacing back and forth on the marble verandah to the temple, totally entranced. I felt like I’d smoked a pound of hash. “Music can do all this!” as one of my colleagues said to me.

Concerto for Voice and Machinery, Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget etc, the ICA, London, January 1984.
There are moments at a live performance, all too rare, when reality shudders, and our ability to stand aside as objective or passive observers collapses. As we are pulled into the vortex of the event, which Antonin Artaud gave the name of the theater of cruelty, there’s a surging of mythical forces. As the field of the possible opens up, things manifest as highly charged, overlapping fragments. Power moves through us. The Concerto for Voice Machinery held at the ICA, reviled but diligent patron of the avant garde, was such a moment.
There was a cement mixer on stage. And some power drills. Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget, various friends. Some microphones. I’m not sure what we were expecting. Some noise, probably, or, more idealistically, for some new buildings to collapse.
At some point glass was tossed into the amplified cement mixer, making a tremendous sound. Someone announced that there was a secret tunnel beneath the ICA leading to Buckingham Palace. Someone else, perhaps Blixa Bargeld, started drilling into the floor of the building (or was it the stage?). The sound was intoxicating, surging purple waves of noise. Dust and sparks flew. Property was being damaged. The management tried to turn the sound off. A tug of war developed between the audience and bouncers for control of the mobile power generator which was powering the cement mixer and drill. Gasoline was leaking everywhere. Someone from the ICA tried to reason with the audience, but after a brief debate, earnestly conceded that the audience was right.
Did the police come? I don’t remember. Did anyone find the secret tunnel and make it for a secret rendezvous with the Queen? I don’t know. Outside of that theater of cruelty and that mad moment of intensity, the pigeon shit in Trafalgar Square and long night time train ride back to south London awaited us, as though nothing whatsover had happened. But for a brief moment, Einsturzende Neubauten started to live up to their name.

Schooly D circa “Saturday Night”, Public Enemy circa “Rebel Without a Pause”, 1000 Boomboxes and Car Stereos, Streets of New York City, 1985-6.
Those visiting the yuppie playground that Manhattan has become today will find it hard to imagine the New York of the early 1980s, subway trains covered with spectacular graffiti, and the streets alive with the sound of hip-hop and funk blasted from beatboxes the size of refrigerators and a thousand car stereos. The city-wide avant art extravaganza pulled off by Dondi, Rammellzee and other graf heroes found it’s analog in a world of sonic experimentation that reached a peak of gorgeous weirdness in the mid-1980s in the early tracks of Philadelphia rapper Schooly D, and the Hank Shocklee/Eric Sadler productions of Public Enemy. Schooly D’s first records such as “P.S.K. (What Does it Mean?)” and “Saturday Night” remain some of the strangest, most dusted hip-hop tracks ever made. Somehow the dull, superheavy drum machine rhythms that hold these tracks together already contain in them the distorted echo of boombox bass and drums echoing through the canyons of projects, a nihilistic ghost sound underscored by Schooly D’s mumbled, just about incomprehensible lyrics, full of menace and mysterious doped up thrills, ready to clear any pavement. It sounded even better when heard on the radio in the street, with strange audible delays resulting when the track was simultaneously broadcast on stereos one two or ten blocks away. Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” is probably as close as we’ll ever get to having free jazz pumped at deafening volume into every public space in a city. The screeching siren like sax loop that sounded so fearsome blasting from a car rumbling across the potholes of Flatbush Avenue, bound for do or die Bed Stuy bound, actually comes “The Grunt” by the JBs. The sound ruled the streets and everybody knew it – Chuck D’s later claim that rap was a “black CNN” seems like a poor consolation prize by comparison.

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela – New York City, The Dream House, Fall 1993 to present.
Even as other minimalists are feted globally and reissue programs make available more and more amazing archival tapes and performances, it remains next to impossible to hear recordings of the work of minimalist founder La Monte Young. A strange paradox then that all you need to do to hear Young’s work is walk up the stairs at 275 Church Street in Tribeca New York, between 2 and midnight on a Thursday or Saturday, to become fully immersed in a sound and light environment by Young and his partner, visual artist Marian Zazeela. The full title of Young’s static drone tone piece is itself too long to print here, but, to quote Young’s description, it’s “a periodic composite sound waveform environment created from sine wave components generated digitally in real time on a custom-designed Rayna interval synthesizer.” Young and Zazeela first developed the concept of the Dream House in the early 1960s as semi-permanent sound and light environments where Zazeela’s calligraphic light sculptures cast luminous shadows while Young’s drones manifest and gesture toward a world of eternal sound. The atmosphere is somewhere between the Rothko Chapel and an Indian raga house concert. No performers, just speaker stacks, a carpeted floor and pillows, magenta lights. You can move and experience the sonic grid created by the tones used in the piece, or lay still and explore the way that “tuning is a function of time” as Young says. Young says that it’s unlikely that anyone has ever experienced the feelings created by the complex cluster of just intonation tones that compose this sound environment. My own experiences in the room have not been ecstatic, in fact I find it difficult to point to any particular affective power in the sound. Yet there’s a strange magnetism to that peanut-butter thick wall of sound in that room that keeps me coming back, “eternal sound” that waits patiently for us to change and recognize it for what it is.

Philip Corner: A Long Life, Endless as the Sky

This was originally published in the June 2004 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I have a very hard time believing in the past,” says Philip Corner, speaking from his home in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he has lived since 1992. “In some way it’s just not real to me. I’ve always had a sense of things being outside of time. It doesn’t matter historically when something was written. I’ve even indicated in some things where I’ve come very close to a universal principle, of putting in the score that this can be done again under a different title, under a different composer’s name.”
Chronicling the life of the often mentioned but undercelebrated 71 year old American composer, best known for his connections to Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater, presents an interesting challenge. Thanks to a recent programme of reissues by Italian label Alga Marghen and the rediscovery of Corner’s remarkable 1970s and 80s work with Gamelan Son Of Lion, recently reissued by Locust, we have a window into Corner’s extraordinarily diverse activities. But what if, as Corner suggests above, a life in sound consisted precisely in stepping outside of biography or documentation? How would such a life be acknowledged or remembered by anyone who has not directly encountered the musician or composer in question? And in Corner’s case, how can one talk about someone who, by taking to a limit some of John Cage’s ideas of freeing music from the legacy of the composer, the notational score, and so on, risked disappearing entirely into sound, without a trace of his activities?
“I never understood why Cage didn’t go any further,” Corner declares. “He opened up something and then he stopped. Since Cage was so concerned with getting rid of what he called the Western claptrap, to stop at the point he did and attack improvisation, which is spontaneity and vision and being in the moment and research and search – by the end of his life, he was negating the basis of his whole aesthetic.”
By contrast Corner has continued to develop Cage’s legacy for the last 40 years, exploring the world of sound from a broad range of positions and perspectives, even for a tradition that prides itself on pulling the rug out from under its own feet. Corner has clearly come to feel at home in the groundless multiplicity that is the sound world. “It used to be that outside of music you have noise, or outside of structure you have chaos and that’s out,” he explains. “I don’t have any sense of that. There are people who represent extreme positions. La Monte Young’s early stuff is really hyperminimal compared with Cage, who was hypermaximal, and together they form an axis. But then at right angles to that you might have free jazz on one side and some kind of ethnic music on the other. And these form a definition of the limits of what essentially is a circle. I think it’s an infinite circle with these kinds of extreme stylistic manifestations at certain points along the edge. I feel that I’ve been working from the edge in towards the centre, which is where you have music, art, structure, tunes, dances – things that are relatively rational or coherent. I’ve also done some things that are working in that cultural centre where you have…” he pauses, deadpanning, “real notes, real tunes, real music.”
Corner’s work has encompassed tape music, piano improvisations involving just about every part of the piano and indeterminate numbers of performers; sound meditations and walks, Alpine horn pieces; a series of interactions with rock ’n’ roll and jazz entitled Popular Entertainments; many compositions for gamelan, some performed on computers, others on the piano, others on traditional and reconstructed Indonesian instruments; a vast body of work exploring the sonic potentialities of metals; orchestral pieces such as If And When It Will Ever Again Be Possible To Write A Piece For Symphony Orchestra (1969) – where “each player has a chance at uninhibited self-expression” – and conceptual sound pieces that range from the self-explanatory minimalism of One Note Once to a conceptual piece entitled Of Hearing The Whole World, which he describes as “a fantasy of an incredible scene, making things as complex as possible”.
“Mostly,” he admits, “I’ve worked around the edges, from some point, in. In pieces like One Note Once, I’ve worked towards an extreme position of: how much can you get rid of? How much do you not need? That’s a very extreme point. Beyond that you have silence which is even less. But in a certain sense silence isn’t less, it’s more. It opens up action, spontaneous theatre, noise, which you could say is diametrically opposed [to silence], 180 degrees in the opposite direction. But these are all extreme points.”
The sheer diversity of Corner’s work forces one to question what it means to talk about a composer or musician’s style. “I’ve noticed,” he says, “that I could be satisfied to stay at any one of these places, and you could say that a lot of people find their style doing that. But there’s no reason why you should be at one place any more than any other, minimal or maximal, jazz or ethnic. It just seemed arbitrary, culturally determined in the most provincial sense, that you find yourself at one particular point and stay there. Nevertheless at any one particular point there’s an infinite number of possibilities, and not just for yourself. In a way this kind of stuff is a discovery rather than an invention, one that’s opened up to other people too. Once these things are discovered, they’re part of human culture and tradition, open to the whole world forever. So I feel that for each one of these areas that was staked out, which manifested in my work, with the conscious resolve to push them in certain directions, I have gone to maximal extremes.”
Once inside the sound world with Corner, ideas flow forth in whole pages of precise thoughts. Try to come back to history, biography, time and he slows down, as though slugging through quicksand, not resentful, but suddenly unable to fly. Still, a few facts emerge. Corner was born in New York’s Bronx in 1933, where he began composing when 12. In 1955 he received a government grant to study in France, and attended Olivier Messiaen’s courses at the Conservatoire in Paris for the following two years, and was already composing Cage-like indeterminate works by the late 1950s.
In 1959, in a move he describes as “fortuitous”, Corner was drafted into the US army and sent to Korea, where he discovered what he calls “the most beautiful piece of music in the history of the world”, a Korean court orchestra piece called Sujecheon (Long Life, As Endless As The Sky). Somewhat similar in style to the Japanese gagaku court music that had a profound effect on minimalists like La Monte Young and their interest in slow tempos and duration. The music’s spaciousness, use of glissandi and very slow tempos made itself felt on Corner’s Situations, composed and performed in Korea, and on pieces like 1962’s Lovely Music, along with others to be found on the soon to be issued More From The Judson Years: Instrumental/Vocal Works on the Italian archival label Alga Marghen.
“One of the things I learnt in Korea was to go into the quality of sound,” says Corner. “I wanted to bring this notion into the range of possibilities – not in order to sound oriental, but to enter into this thing that the Orient had explored that the West hadn’t. And I pushed that as far as it could go, finding that place on the outside of the circle – which funnily enough leads to something that’s 180 degrees removed, which is self expression! Self expression’s supposed to be out. But there’s this link between the objectivity of listening to the world as it is, to sounds as they really are, and seeing in that self expression and feeling all the direct correlates of that in the human body, the human being. The wind blowing or the waves have the same quality as someone screaming or sighing. What’s coming from the inside of somebody’s experience is definitely related to how the world is working.”
Corner returned from Korea in 1961 to a New York in the middle of a creative renaissance. Suddenly dance, music, film, poetry, theatre, art and every other category of artistic production and experience were being gleefully taken apart and reassembled in a multiplicity of events, counter-events, actions and happenings that, much to the irritation of many involved, including Corner, have become associated with the name/word Fluxus.
“There was no such thing as ‘Fluxus’ at the time,” he asserts. “Let’s talk about specific people. Of course Cage I met during my Columbia days and got to know him pretty well. I also met Dick Higgins. My good friend was Malcolm Goldstein. Also Richard Maxfield. Some of these people had a foot in Fluxus, and some had other connections. Through Malcolm I met Jim Tenney, through whom I met Carolee Schneeman. Through Dick I met Alison Knowles and Jackson MacLow. La Monte Young. I knew George Brecht. I knew Yoko Ono from before I went to Korea. And then there was George Maciunas who was an organiser, who pulled together a lot of people who were already working, who’d already created a style and performed together. He put together some programmes and called it Fluxus and it became this thing with an ideology and a manifesto, everything else that is now causing confusion in the world about what Fluxus was and is.”
Depending on how you look at it, the early 1960s were either an excellent or a very bad time to be a piano. Corner’s Piano Activities was infamously performed at the 1962 Wiesbaden festival, which is often considered the inauguration of Fluxus. The piece, whose score advises a group of people to, among other things, “play”, “pluck or tap”, “scratch or rub”, “drop objects” on, “act on strings with”, “strike soundboard, pins, lid or drag various kinds of objects across them” and “act in any way on underside of piano” resulted in the total destruction of the piano at the hands of a group including Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Alison Knowles and George Maciunas, and was considered scandalous enough at the time to make it onto German television. Although Corner says that the objective was not necessarily to destroy the instrument, Piano Work (1970) features his high school students from the New Lincoln School in Harlem, taking an old piano apart with their hands in what he calls an “operatic” performance, while discussing their creative work of destruction. “Dig it!” says one student, gleefully.
Another early 1960s Corner piano piece of note is Keyboard Dances, which the composer performed at the Judson Dance Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. A Peter Moore photograph from this period shows him seated at the piano, his foot resting on the keyboard with a delicacy and precision somewhere between that of a dancer doing warmup exercises and a kung fu master about to chop a block of wood in two with one intensely focused blow. A reconstruction of one of these dances on 1998’s Forty Years Plus One: Philip Corner Plays The Piano (XI) confirms the surprising mixture of delicacy and pulsing keyboard clusters.
Corner moved through the world of the 1960s New York avant garde chronicled by performance critic Sally Banes in books like Greenwich Village 1963: The Effervescent Body and Democracy’s Body, her history of the Judson company, for whom he composed and performed a variety of pieces, collaborating with many key figures in contemporary dance including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and other future stars of the avant garde such as composer and vocalist Meredith Monk, cellist Charlotte Moorman and artist Robert Rauschenberg. He met his wife, the dancer Phoebe Neville there too. He also wrote for Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre and formed the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in 1963 with composers James Tenney and Malcolm Goldstein, to perform Charles Ives’s vocal music, which was at that time out of fashion – but soon branched out into performing their own work and those of their Fluxus pals.
During this period Corner expanded his use of non-traditional scores, hundreds of which have since been published in beautiful editions by Frog Peak Music (www.frogpeak.org). These scores offer an encyclopedia of alternative ways of describing a musical piece, ranging from a single sentence instruction (like the self-explanatory One Note Once) to a baroque visual mapping of possibilities of, say, one of his gamelan pieces, often involving calligraphic or other visual elements, blurring the line between a text, a painting and a piece of music.
What sound at first like ‘improvisations’ are in fact well crafted sets of parameters and instructions to be observed by the performing group, giving rise to chaotic spontaneities and regrouped constellations of order that are as much a discovery for the performers as for any audience. Most of the compositions do not indicate particular instrumentation. As with the work of a number of the key New York composers of that period, “the concept is the composition… It’s certainly not just a question of, Well, we’re here, we’re free, let’s do anything we want,” Corner continues. “It’s always bothered me that the tradition that we’ve come down with, of music literature, has pushed us into putting down every note and turning the interpreter into a technician. This ridiculous idea of the will of the composer and the perfect realisation of the score. The idea of allowing personal variation, whether improvised or done by ear, has always been attractive to me. With my scores, instead of detail being defined, such as the tune, etcetera, the framework is indicated. My work has a range of possibilities that can be defined.”
In the case of Corner’s Elementals, which consists of a series of ‘fill in the blank spaces’ for pitch, tempo, instrument, etc, that range is quite considerable. The piece received its premiere in 1977 at New York’s Kitchen, at the suggestion of the venue’s music director Rhys Chatham, in a performance that lasted for five days, involving up to 40 musicians at different times, all playing a C sharp at a tempo of once per second. Alga Marghen hopes to put the recordings out as a DVD soon.
However beautiful the recordings of Corner’s work from the 1960s are, to really experience his work, you should get together with a group of friends (or enemies, for that matter) and actually perform them. While certainly not unique in doing this, Corner’s work from the 1960s opened a door out of the controlled space of the stage, not to say the medium of recorded music, to a more general experience of the sound world. In 1965’s never realised Vietnam War piece, Anti-Personnel Bomb, drastic means of emptying the concert hall were conceived. “It basically says, an anti-personnel bomb will be thrown into the audience, and you print that on the programme as the title of the piece. And then the performance of the piece is to announce that the piece won’t be performed,” comments Corner. In I Can Walk Through The World As Music, from the same year, he took the audience at New York’s Town Hall for a sound walk around Times Square, one of many pieces that focuses on the act of listening to sounds rather than creating them. In 1972, with his first wife Julie Winter, Corner started Sounds Out Of Silent Spaces, a music ritual collective that met twice monthly at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. The group, which included Alison Knowles, Daniel Goode, Charlie Morrow and William Hellermann at various times, would begin each evening with improvisations on found objects and instruments, moving into drone chanting followed by a silent meditation and ending with dance/rhythm based pieces. For Corner, the group provided a way of exploring the spiritual potential of music, without needing to link it to any particular idea of spirituality or spiritual tradition. “Everything is spiritual, depending on how you look at it,” he says. “I certainly think all music is spiritual. I always thought that the most evident spirituality came from chanting on one note – so minimalism, music that eliminates a lot of things in a quite objective way, leads you to a concentrated inner experience. But I wanted the deepest spiritual experiences pure, without the contamination of religious doctrine.”
In 1972, Corner accepted a position in the music department at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers University that had been a Fluxus stronghold since the late 1950s. The College hired ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary in 1973, who, having studied gamelan on the West Coast with Lou Harrison, decided to build an Indonesian gamelan for students to practise on, using instructions supplied by Berkeley Gamelan founder Daniel Schmidt, a sheet of steel and a lot of old grapefruit tins. Benary herself was initially against the idea of mixing Eastern and Western traditions, but as Corner’s New Music Performing Group and composer Daniel Goode became increasingly involved, and Gamelan Son Of Lion (‘Ben Ari’ is ‘son of lion’ in Hebrew) came into being, the group started to develop in a way that, as Benary says, “had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music”.
Gamelan has a long, rich history as an object of inspiration and appropriation for Western composers, going back to Debussy, who heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. Some composers working with gamelan, like Colin McPhee, lived in Bali for periods of time, while others, like Henry Cowell, studied and taught it as part of surveys of World Music. The measured, formal qualities of traditional gamelan at first appear to be highly resistant to the spontaneous singularities characteristic of Corner’s previous work. Surprisingly, an interest in numbers opened the gamelan up to him. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach,” he acknowledges, “and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which numbers always seemed to inhibit. But I can go back to my work in the 1950s, stuff that was even more indeterminate than Cage, but pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation. I never renounced long tones fading into silence, gonglike sounds floating in untuned space. With the gamelan you don’t necessarily hear that, but everything is tuned that way, and it still sounds like objects floating in pre-rational space.”
Just as chaos theory shows how mathematical formulae can themselves produce highly unpredictable and complex patterns, pieces like the marvellous Gamelan on Three Pieces For Gamelan, which begins with a slow deep gong sound fading into silence and gradually adds higher pitched instruments playing at increasingly rapid tempos, or the graphically scored Gamelan PC on Gamelan In The New World Vol 2, apply apparently simple principles of pitch and time measurement to each of the individual instruments in the gamelan, collectively producing a rich, highly complex permutating sound.
The other strand that connects Corner’s interest in gamelan to his earlier work is a fascination with the sonic qualities of metal, which he investigated on 1960s works such as the exuberant, booming Gong! or 1973’s Metal Meditations, in which improvisors including David Behrmann explore the resonances of amplified bells and other metal sources. “I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom,” Corner recalls, “and metal involves the possibility of noise as well as resonance, the oriental idea of sound dying away into silence, the use of silence, static sounds and all of that.” The gamelan provided a whole set of new possibilities for meditating on metal – and over the following 20 years, Corner produced more than 400 such pieces.
Gamelan Son Of Lion released the first of two volumes entitled Gamelan In The New World on Moses Asch’s Folkways Records in 1979 (both have recently been reissued by Locust; full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes). The two sets are wonderfully fragile, childlike recordings: beginner’s mind or luck, backed by a fierce determination not to produce anything remotely resembling traditional Indonesian music. Dika Newlin’s Machine Shop, for example, was “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, NJ”, although the set’s most exquisite moment, Benary’s In Scrolls Of Leaves, with its melodious zither, invokes Indian classical music.
“There was a conscious decision, certainly not to impose a group style, but among the leaders there was a desire not to create neo-exotic music – although there was a lot of minimalist, repetitive stuff going on in the 1980s,” Corner recalls. “When I got to the West Coast I saw that there was another aspect to it. That we were [adopts singsong by-rote voice] ‘reactionary East Coasters under the umbrella of the European tradition’, unable to free ourselves from 20th century European avant gardism while they in California were part of a pan-Pacific culture which included Indonesia and Korea and that was really their culture, so that they could do that. And Lou [Harrison] did what he was doing, but there were others who were doing quasi-traditional pieces. I used to call this California style, ‘afternoon on the beach’. To me it had very little to do with real Indonesian music, which somehow, because of Lou’s genius, crept into his music anyway.”
Harrison himself was criticised for using non-traditional elements, especially in later works, such as Suite For Violin And American Gamelan where he mixes Western and Eastern instruments. Corner, who returned to the Bay Area to study with Harrison in 1982, felt that Harrison’s approach to gamelan was “absolutely against everything I believe – that here’s an American composer who decides that he is going to imitate faithfully classical Javanese music and write in a classical Javanese style, just as someone might say, ‘I’m going to do Palestrina counterpoint exercises and call them compositions’. I said: ‘This is absolutely absurd!’ The only thing is that Lou makes it work. And that to me is a great miracle. I just had to accept that.”
Corner himself finally visited Indonesia in 1986, ten years after he began composing for gamelan. In an interview with gamelan composer Jody Diamond made just before his trip, he argued that “you can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.”
Corner was well received and collaborated with Javanese composers, such as Michael Asmara, with whom he remains in touch, but his involvement with gamelan ended when he left New York for Italy in 1992. However, Benary and Goode have continued to compose and perform with Gamelan Son Of Lion, and have issued a number of new recordings.
In the famous rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari talk about the symbiotic relationship between an orchid and the wasp that seeks out the flower and distributes its pollen. The idea of this productive meeting and collaboration of two or more entirely unrelated objects or beings, resonates with many of Corner’s compositions and ideas, not to mention his theories of harmony, which he developed through an intense interest in exploring the sonic properties of metal.
“The essential harmony is dissonant,” he declares. “Everything we call harmony is essentially counterpoint. Putting together single tones – the relationship between single tones. We use harmony as a kind of prejudice, against disharmony. Some relationships are acceptable, some aren’t. Some we call harmonious, some we don’t. But I see it all as essentially counterpoint. Whenever you take distinct pitches and put them together in combinations, it’s counterpoint.”
The notion that literally any combination of tones is harmonic flies in the face of the equal temperament tuning system that has dominated Western classical music since Bach, but it’s equally foreign to those who favour alternative tuning systems, such as Just Intonation, grounded in particular mathematical or physical principles of sound. For Corner, harmony is about relationship, and relationship is a good thing, the more sonically complex the better, as evidenced by recent works like a p o t h e o s e from Pieces Of Acoustic Reality, in which he conducts metal meditations while an old recording of Baroque composer François Couperin’s Apothéose De Lully plays. It should sound ‘wrong’, but it doesn’t – it sounds contemporary, in the same way that French film maker Jean-Luc Godard’s soundtrack use of classical music sources might.
“Harmony has to do with a sonic entity that does not collapse into an accumulation of components, pitches,” explains Corner. “It’s inherently dense. So the closest approach in equal temperament is a cluster. It’s no surprise that the effect of a cluster is not really violent – if you want violent, dissonant sound, one does much better to have, say, major seventh and minor ninth chords with spaces in between, emphasising the dissonant intervals. When you use a cluster, you can play them very subtly, very softly, and they’re cool, they’re very refreshing, very harmonious. You approach the limit where you can distinguish the components. If you go further, into entities where the component vibrations are much smaller, narrower than the limits of equal temperament, you start getting what I call real harmony. And the model in nature for that is a waterfall. Which is a supercluster. And the flat gong, which doesn’t emphasise a single tone, also creates a wash of sound over a broad spectrum in which the individual components are not extractable. So, to me, that’s harmony.“
It’s also the kind of harmony that sums up Corner’s entire lifework – a supercluster of experimental approaches to creating sound-based works. “I was interested in moving beyond pattern!” he concludes. “I feel it’s necessary to go to the circumference because the circumference is where any one thing equals everything. And it’s just as important to go there as to the centre. But, going there [to the circumference], what you get on the way is the elimination of pattern and you end up with raw material. My music has been concerned with all these elements, possibilities, whether of pulse, single tones, even spontaneity, outcry – as raw material, a totally distilled element of raw nature. As you move towards the centre where human cultures have always been, you find patterned complexities of these elements. I was always interested in revealing the elements, through a process of microscopy, finding the elements, asking: what’s underneath, what’s the thing behind them all?”

More From the Judson Years: Instrumental-Vocal Works Vols 1 and 2 are out this month on Alga Marghen; Gamelan Son Of Lion’s The Complete Gamelan In The New World is out now on Locust. Corner’s scores are available from Frog Peak Music (www.frogpeak.org)

The Eternal Drone

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

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

Walter Benjamin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).


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!


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.

Henry Flynt: American Gothic

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

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