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. “

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.)

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Intro

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.

Ethnopsychedelia

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.

References:
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).

Meditation Music

This was originally published in the November 2008 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

A heavy synthesizer drone fills the air, like something out of early Tangerine Dream. For a moment I can’t believe I’m actually hearing it. I’m standing in the bookstore at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. An elephant at the temple next door is giving blessings with his trunk. There is music in ashrams of course – devotional singing in groups, bhajans, chants – but this is different, the music unfolds slowly, some strange kind of fusion of Debussy, prog rock and raga, powerful and heavy. I ask one of the staff who it is and I’m told that it’s by Sunil, a former scientist who lived in the ashram for decades and began composing keyboard and later synthesizer music at the encouragement of one of the ashram’s two founders, The Mother, partner of the ashram’s namesake, Bengali poet, mystic and nationalist hero Sri Aurobindo. Sunil composed music in honor of the New Year each year from 1959 to 1998, and also set many hours of Aurobindo’s remarkable epic poem Savitri to music. I ask where I can buy the music but no one knows. They just call the music “ashram music”. I’m told that maybe someone at another office can burn me some mp3s, but nothing is for sale.
Although the ashram itself has proved itself adapt at running guest and publishing houses and a variety of other businesses which sustain the community, Sunil’s music was made as an act of devotion, and outside the visionary community founded by Aurobindo and the Mother it is almost unknown. It’s a remarkable story, but not unique. There is Alice Coltrane’s retreat from the jazz scene and commercial recordings to a California ashram where she sang and played, occasionally issuing cassettes of devotional music under the name of Swamini Turiyasangitananda that were available only at the ashram. Or Oliver Messiaen, who played the church organ at services at La Trinité in Paris from 1931 to his death in 1992. And this was not Messiaen’s only work outside of the conventional space of the concert hall. His famous “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed in the Stalag VIII-A concentration camp where the composer was interned during World War II, and received its performance in the camp for an audience of prisoners and prison guards with Messiaen playing a busted up old piano.
Many performers have had parallel careers performing and participating in religious communities – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan continued performing at Sufi shrines in Pakistan after his recordings became a fixture of yoga classes in the West. In other religious communities, including Christian Pentecostal churches, everybody sings and everybody participates and there is no audience. The line between producer and consumer is erased — and participants would probably claim that God (or Gods, or spirits) is the producer and the audience too. Communes offer another version of this — Amon Duul in Munich 1967, the early Faust in Würme emerged as “rock groups” out of much more undefined sets of collective activities, of which making music was one kind of ritual, complete with “om” chants, “tribal” percussion jams and other spiritual elements. Or Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, a group emerging out of a commune of 100 people living in a mansion in Los Angeles, selling home made LPs for $1 in their health food restaurant. Or the Sun Ra Arkestra in Philadelphia, whose performances always felt like looking in on a private festival or ritual, complete with esoteric language and style. Although not overtly religious, such groups made music as a way of exploring and expressing an ecstatic community that was an end in itself, and a “spiritual” one at that. Making and selling recordings could be an act of evangelism, a crazy get-rich-quick scheme fuelled by “cosmic” intuitions, or simply a humble attempt to make a living and support the community.
Indian classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath thought that students recording his lessons, or even notating what he was singing, was a bad idea and a corruption of what the music really is. Furthermore, he was against the recording of music and found even amplification problematic. He lived for a while in a famous Siva cave in the foothills of the Himalaya, singing for God and the community living in the cave – supporting himself with occasional trips to Delhi to perform for All India Radio. Practice, and the perfection of it also becomes an end in itself. Practice is of course a part of many music cultures from the decades of finger studies of classical pianists to weekly punk rock band practice. But the word practice also has a religious meaning, when the discipline of making music is performed with the intention of perfecting oneself before God. In such a practice, one might never actually utter a sound – in some traditions, the repetition of mantras, sacred or magical phrases, is thought to be more powerful if it is entirely mental; I’ve also been told of Indian classical musicians who mentally practice scales hundreds of octaves above or below those found on a piano, as an act of concentration.
At the highest level the mystery of music concerns the manifestation of sound as a set of powerfully affective structures that come from … who knows where? But if music is a gift then the act of listening also becomes creative and potentially devotional. Thus Cage’s 4’ 33” or Philip Corner’s “I Can Walk Through the World as Music”, both pieces where music and meditation come close to one another, in the act of paying attention to the actually existing sound environment. This act of paying attention could take you a long way – in various yogic traditions, one is advised to listen to “the unstruck sound”, the sound that remains when all that is temporary fades away again after manifesting … the original drone, Nad Brahma – “sound is God”.

Ocean of Sound (Ocean of Silence): Siri Karunamayee talks to Marcus Boon

This was originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Ascent Magazine. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I first met Sri Karunamayee at a music workshop held in Rishikesh last winter, where she was teaching Indian classical music, alongside other students of the great Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, and other members of the Kirana gharana, India’s foremost school of classical singing. Aside from her beautiful voice, Sri Karunamayee’s classes were impressive in the way they stressed the fundamentals of singing and sound. The roots of her ability to articulate a philosophy of sound and it’s Divine nature can be found in her life story.
Sri Karunamayee was born into a family in Delhi that was devoted to spiritual music. She pursued parallel careers as a singer and an educator, achieving the status of a class ‘A’ broadcasting artist for All India Radio, while at the same time obtaining a Masters in Philosophy from Delhi University, and acting as head of the music department at V.M. College of Ghaziabad of Agra University. Throughout her life, she has been committed to music as a spiritual practice, seeking out the highest teachers like Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, Vediji. She was one of the first students of Pandit Pran Nath, who in 1970 brought the Indian Classical vocal tradition to America, and numbered amongst his students, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley and Jon Hassell. Sri Karunamayee pays regular visits to North America, at the invitation of the Bay Area’s Sur-Laya-Sangam, to teach Hindustani vocal music.
One day in 1966 while traveling by bus in Delhi, she felt the urge to go visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in the outskirts of the city. There, she Encountered the Ashram’s founder, an old family friend and holy man named Sri Surendra Nath Jauhar Fakir. Strangely, she heard an ‘inner call’, and offered to sing a song for him. After much persuasion, he gave in, and she sang, reducing the room to tears. Mindful of the time, she made her excuses to leave, but was refused. She remains at the Ashram to this day, teaching and engaged in her Sadhana.
I visited Sri Karunamayee at Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi on a beautiful morning in May. The sound of cuckoos in the garden vied with the sound of auto-rickshaws, airplanes and the delightful urban chaos of Delhi. We spoke for several hours, with a large photo portrait of The Mother beaming down on us. The conversation was so exhilarating that even the Delhi public bus that I took back into the city center afterwards, a notorious source of discomfort, felt infinitely spacious and full of joy.

MB: In what way can we understand making music as a form of spiritual practice?
K: Music, and especially Pandit Pran Nath’s approach to music, is very close to silence, the Sunyatta, from which everything comes and to which everything returns. That music is so close to silence, that to attain it, one has to learn to go within, make the inward journey. It is not so easy. First one should have the aspiration to do so. One should know that there is something worthwhile in going to the depths, where there is not so much sensation, activity, turmoil and drama as on the surface. The very depths are so still and impenetrable. In our own selves there are such levels. If one wants to be fully dynamic and effective in the true sense we must contact and master this level of perfect silence and equilibrium. Playing with a top in full motion it appears static, fixed, and gray, but just a touch and lo, it assumes quite a turmoil, hectic movement and a riot of so many colors! This is what life is like. When you have achieved that balance, only then will you try to make this venture. You were asking about pop music earlier. If you want the surface, all the variety, thrills, change and change and change, then pop music is very good. But if you want to know what is the ultimate reason why all this has been created, and not just be tossed by the rising and falling of the waves, if you want to know where the power of the waves comes from, you have to go to the tides. And what controls the tides?

MB: How do you stop yourself from getting lost in those depths?
K: Indian music—the very blessing of the Divine as Shiva—has given us the gift of the tambura, the four stringed Veena or Drone, which gives you a feeling of groundedness, so you do not get lost as in Western music. The tambura will support you always. It is said that even Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning and music, when she enters the Nada Brahman, the ocean of sound, feels that it is so impenetrable, so profound, that she 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.

MB: Such an ocean!
K: Yes. And that ocean of sound is the sound of silence. The depth of which is expressed in the sounds of the tambura.

MB: The sound is the reflection of the silence?
K: Yes. Silence: it is like the depth of depths. It is the eternal game of hide and seek. You may create any number of sophisticated games in the world, but the one game with universal appeal, which nobody is ever tired of, is the game of hide and seek. From the child to the oldest person. Everyone loves it. Sound: from where does it manifest? From where has it come? Where does it go? It merges into the ether, the Sunyatta, and then it re-emerges. Whether we are in the sound, or the sound is in us, it is always a mystery. Even when we are not striking up any sound, does the unstruck sound not emanate through us, in spite of us? The ocean of sound is composed of that struck and unstruck sound, all rolled into One. And we are a part of that. The drop is in the ocean. But the drop in the ocean can say, yes I am ocean.

MB: Are we sound?
K: We are sound. Aren’t we? When we are in control of sound, then we are sound. And that sound is just like when you hold a set of scales, on one side you keep the weight, on the other you keep the goods. So sound is balanced with silence. You cannot be fully aware of the beauty of this sound unless you have tasted silence.

MB: Are we silence then too?
K: Yes.

MB: How did you became involved in music?
K: Oh! My involvement in music? Surely it started before I was born. Because “sound-crazy” as I am, how could I not be born in a family which was already resounding with the music of masters like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Fayyaz Khan and Pandit Bhatkande? Through my grandfather’s hummings, my father’s singing, my elder brother and sister’s practice, and through their teachers. But as a small child I liked to go to where nobody made any sound. Where two doors met in our house there was such a place, and I would just go and hide myself there. For hours I would stand there and feel the silence. Silence going into sound, and sound turning into silence. That was my favorite time. Sometimes my mother would look at the brood and say “uh oh, where is Karuna?” We were a big family. I had to find my own corner of silence, which was essential for my existence.

MB: Did you have a formal music instructor?
K: 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.
But you asked about formal instruction. In answer to my deepest aspiration for music as the path for my self-realization, at the age of twelve I was blessed by the teaching of Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya of Gwalior Gharana, a second generation disciple of the savant of Indian music, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who initiated me into the depths and lofty heights of Indian music with crystal clear understanding and with a due sense of devotion and commitment for which I am so grateful.

MB: When did you first meet Pandit Pran Nath?
K: I met him in 1953 at a music festival in Delhi. This was a difficult time in Guruji’s life. His master, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan had just died and Guruji was like a person who was very disturbed, uprooted. When Guruji started singing, my teacher Dadaji said to me, “Listen carefully, this is the music for singing for which you have taken birth on earth.” Guruji sang “Miyan Ki Mulhar.” That is a raga of rain. At certain moments, when Guruji sang, it seemed that he collected the breath of all of us, and held it for some time, and then gave it release. About five thousand people were sitting in that hall. So he held the breath of us all, collected our breath through his own breath, held it at one pitch and then let go. When he let go, we also let go. And that opened our eyes. I could never imagine that someone could hold the breath of other people. It was a shock to me. All this can be done with music! And when he ended there was torrential rain! And suddenly Pran Nathji got up, he was very sad and frustrated and angry, and he said, “I’m not a musician, I’m only a teacher.” And he left the stage. We were very shocked.

MB: The first time I heard a recording of him, I thought it sounded wrong. I couldn’t understand what he was doing. I’d never heard someone consciously trying to do what he was doing. It educated my ears.
K: You need to develop a special faculty. Then you can hear. Supposing someone is born with no faculty to smell. You say, “Oh a rose smells so beautiful!” He says, “What are you talking about?” Sri Aurobindo said people live in a three dimensional world. But in fact we live in a four dimensional world. What is the fourth dimension? The Divine. To live with or without the Divine: it is like living with or without a dimension. So living with or without music is living with or without a dimension. Music is a dimension of our existence. I first realized this when I heard everyone’s breath held in one man’s hand— and unless he decided to let go, we couldn’t release our breath. Five thousand people sitting there. So this can be done. But what is happening in between the breaths? I became aware of that when I started learning from Pran Nathji.

MB: What was Pandit Pran Nath like as a teacher?
K: He was a great teacher. He would expect the best from you and could bring out the best. Every step: the way of looking at notes, at rhythm, everything was Divine approach. With him I felt there was no difference between Divine experience and musical experience. Life was music, life was Divine. It was one experience. He said: music is just like waves, it is continuity, sometimes one aspect is shown more, another time, another aspect. It should be a total experience. I always used to look at notes from different angles, but he taught me to look at a note in its totality all at the same time. All at the same time: you see how it is rising, and at the same time, how it is balancing to fall down.

MB: So it could go in any direction?
K: Yes. The real music is between the notes, that is Pandit Pran Nath’s special contribution. Notes are landmarks but in-between much happens. When a child is growing from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, there are so many stages of maturity. One Marcus was born as a baby, and it is the same person growing, passing through different phases in life. That is continuity.

MB: The note is always passing through time?
K: Yes, music with its notes, its sound and silence, is something continuous. For our own limited understanding, we put limits on this continuity. A mother who is with a child all the time cannot see how her child is growing, but any person who only sees the child every few weeks will say, “Oh, the baby has grown.” The Western musical notation system cannot do justice to sound, it can just point. That’s all. Notation misses how one thing changes into another.

MB: The great Balinese Gamelan master Wayan Lotring once said “In my time, all music was nothing but nuances…”
K: Those subtle things in between go unnoticed because of the fast life, to notice them you have to slow down your own inner speed. Look at pop music, how fast and loud it is. It doesn’t give you the opportunity to think of the finest nuances, and observe how one thing changes into another. It is so imperceptible. But even it is made perceptible, if you can bring your consciousness to focus on that sacred phenomenon of one thing becoming another, to hold control over that is not a simple thing. Things get out of hand!

MB: I heard Pandit Pran Nath say that raga means living souls. What did he mean by that?
K: Pandit Pran Nathji was a Siddha-Nada-Yogi of the highest realization. With his natural gift, and his sadhana of the purity of sound, he was able to offer a living experience of Ragas as divine entities coming and manifesting in their celestial true forms. Every note and nuance had the power and potency to bless the singer and the listener alike with felicity and Ananda. When the singer invokes the spirit of a particular raga, his own spirit gets attuned to a pitch of the raga, and through those sounds, he says to the spirits please come down and manifest. He offers himself completely. When he is singing a raga he is not thinking of anything else, every drop of him is taken possession of, there is no individuality left. Unless that surrender is there, we have not invoked the spirit of the raga.

MB: Can such a spiritual practice of Indian music really take root in a place like North America?
K: Music is a great barrier breaker. Pandit Pran Nathji’s music was spontaneously appreciated and adopted by the spiritual seekers, practitioners following the Sufi path like Pir Vilayat Khan and his followers, and master musicians like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, John Hassell and others. They open-heartedly welcomed this absolutely different tradition of Indian music—and even that of the Kirana Gharana—taking a head long plunge into the Nada Brahma in Yogic spirit. This resulted in a sea-change in their approach, and the emergence of a new musical form which has been called minimalism.
Just as India is dedicated to divinity, America’s ruling spirit is liberty. They really respect freedom – but from that, misunderstandings also come, and you have to pay a price for this. India has paid a price for divinity. All kinds of sadhana are prevalent here, but in the name of sadhana, there is much negativity also. In the same way, in America, there is a ruling spirit of freedom, but it is not fully applied. It will be applied only when just as I say, “The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you and bows down before it,” in the same way, the should say, “The free soul in me respects the free soul in you.” Everyone! If we have perfected one quality, then all the other things will be taken care of. When we have really mastered the idea of liberty, there is no difference between liberty and divinity! And music is doing this work: music is that which will open all hearts, it is the fountain of grace which will pour down over all creation.

Jon Hassell: There Was No Avant Garde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: Did he talk much about that?

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

MB: That it had that sensuous, incarnate quality …

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

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

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

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

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

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

JH: Sounds right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

JH: Right.

MB: But Pran Nath was not particularly a hashishin.

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

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

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

MB: So you were mixing this live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: How many times did you go to India?

JH: Just once.

MB: Any particular memories?

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

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

JH: Totally. Totally.

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

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

MB: But most people studied singing with him …

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

MB: Did he ask you to do that?

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

MB: Did you formally become a disciple?

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

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

III

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

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

MB: You start using words like matrices …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: Did he comment on your music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlemagne Palestine: Searching for the Golden Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is There Music After 091101?

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

In a recent seminar in New York, post 091101, French philosopher Jacques Derrida noted a link between music and forgiveness. He described an exchange between philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, who has written passionately of the impossibility of forgiving the Germans for the Holocaust, and a young German, who wrote an eloquent, unevasive response to Jankelevitch, describing his own feelings of guilt regarding an event that occurred before he was even born, and inviting him to visit him in Germany. Jankélévitch, who is a music lover, turned down the invitation to visit, even though the young German assured him that he would not play no German music, but only the French Debussy. Moved by the young man’s letter however, Jankelevitch, invited him to visit him in Paris, where they would “sit down together at the piano.”
No doubt, it’s premature to talk of forgiveness right now. 091101 was an unspeakable event – as I write, the bodies of those trapped in those planes and the WTC towers remain unburied, just a few miles away from me. Silence is not a word that comes to mind when one speaks of New York City – but at least for the first few days after the event, the city was almost silent. Nothing however draws pundits and speech as much as the very impossibility of speaking. And music also steps into this void of the unspeakable. But not unambiguously, as the above example in which Jankélévitch assumes that he has the power to forgive or not, suggests. One might also think of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s playing of a Mendelsohn violin piece, to show his “respect” for the Jewish people he has “insulted”. Or the kitsch of Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory”, Michael Jackson’s “Black and White.” Can music act as the true expression of a forgiveness that must go beyond words – or is it a substitution for it, a convenient sleight of hand?
One of my teachers, Avital Ronell, began her first post 091101 class by ringing a bell. Another began by invoking the memory of a street musician heard on the way to school that day, belting out a tune on an old organ. At the strange shrines that sprang up spontaneously all over lower Manhattan in the days after 091101, there were the predictable post-Lennon folk singers, but also samba groups, Tibetan chants, jazz.
For myself, most of my records and CDs sit in the exact same place they were on the night of 091001. One symptom of trauma is a visceral distaste for everything that one was doing at the moment of shock. I’m sensitive to sounds, although, since I watched 091101 from my roof in Williamsburg, far enough away to see events unfold without hearing the sound, perhaps my ears are in better shape than my eyes. When I see an aircraft, I have doubts as to what it is that I am seeing: a vehicle or a bomb.
For the first weeks after 091101, the only music I was able to listen to was Indian ragas, which, with their sustained focus on a particular emotional mood, slowly penetrate consciousness until everything else falls away. And I thought about raga master Pandit Pran Nath, born a Hindu in what is now Pakistan, member of a Muslim gharana in India – precisely the kind of liminal figure we need right now, able to move between and reconcile worlds that are tragically polarized, through devotion to perfect sound.
To my surprise though, in the last week or so, I’ve found myself listening repeatedly to the queasy cold-war music of my youth: Bowie’s Low, early Pere Ubu, This Heat – avant-rock from the late-1970s that was both parasitic on, and sought to transform the prevailing culture of political polarization. Music that worked with fear, that looked for lines of flight. Does it sound gripping right now because of this, or is it that I’m going through a protective movement of regression, to “simpler” times?

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.

Pandit Pran Nath

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

panditprannath01The sun is going down outside the magenta tinted windows of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House space in Tribeca, New York. It is a summer evening in June 2001 (or 01 VI 10 7:01:00 PM NYC, to use Young’s calendrical system). The synthesized, Just Intonation tuned pitch frequencies of the dronework that usually saturates this space by day are silent, giving way to the annual memorial raga cycle in honour of Pandit Pran Nath. The minimal decor of this room, in which Young and Zazeela’s musical and spiritual guru lived from 1977-79, is transformed by a small shrine, with a picture of Pran Nath, flowers, and burning incense. Young and Zazeela sit behind a mixing desk in the centre of the room, wearing space age biker saddhu gear, and introducing a selection of raga recordings from their Dream House archives, as the small crowd – a mixture of devoted former Pran Nath students and current protegés of Young – lounge on the floor or against the wall. Unless you are lucky enough to own one of the long-unavailable recordings made by Pran Nath, this once a year event is currently the only way that you can hear what his performances sounded like.
No Indian music sounds like Young’s 1970s recordings of Pran Nath. The droning tamburas are located high up in the mix, as loud, rich and powerful as vintage Theater Of Eternal Music (the experimental group Young and Zazeela formed in the mid-60s with John Cale, Tony Conrad and Angus Maclise). The tabla playing is simple but tough. The midnight raga Malkauns is traditionally said to describe a yogi beset by tempting demons while meditating. Recorded in 1976 in a SoHo studio in New York, Pran Nath’s version is unspeakably moving as he slowly chants the composition “Hare Krishna Govinda Ram” over and over, his voice winding in stretched-out, subtly nuanced glissandos that leave you begging for the next note. The 62 minute recording sounds completely traditional in it’s adherence to the slow, minimal style of the Kirana school of Indian classical music which Pran Nath belonged to, while containing in the sound itself everything that was happening in the city that year, the same year that Scorsese’s Taxi Driver hit the movie houses. Pran Nath’s voice and Young’s production turn the city into a sacred modern hyperspace, full of tension and beauty, in which anything, from Krishna to Son of Sam, can manifest.

As the music sends me into one of Young’s “drone states of mind”, I remember another sunset, a few months before, on the other side of the world. I am standing with a group of raga students at the gate of Tapkeshwar, a 5000 year old cave temple devoted to Siva, located about ten miles north of Dehra Dun in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya when the aged temple keeper turns to us and asks “Where is Terry Riley?” Around us a steady flow of pilgrims, old and young, climb down the steps to the entrance of the cave, to pour water over the Siva lingam in the heart of the temple. Not a place one would necessarily expect to find one of America’s most prolific composers of the postwar era. But over the last 30 years, Terry Riley has been a frequent visitor to this cave, where his guru and instructor in the North Indian classical tradition, Pandit Pran Nath, the man he has called “the greatest musician I have ever heard”, lived for a number of years in the 1940s.

If Riley’s presence in Tapkeshwar comes a surprise, it seems equally unlikely that Pran Nath, a reclusive, classically trained Indian singer who spent his time at Tapkeshwar living as a naked, ash covered ascetic, singing only for God, should end his days in the former New York Mercantile Exchange Building that housed Young and Zazeela’s Dream House, teaching Indian classical music to a broad spectrum of America’s avant garde musicians, including Jon Hassell, Charlemagne Palestine, Arnold Dreyblatt, Rhys Chatham, Henry Flynt, Yoshi Wada and Don Cherry. Although virtually unknown in India, Pran Nath’s devotion to purity of tone resonates through key minimalist masterworks like Young’s The Well Tuned Piano, Riley’s Just Intonation keyboard piece Descending Moonshine Dervishes, Henry Flynt’s extraordinary raga fiddling, Charlemagne Palestine’s droneworks and Jon Hassell’s entire Fourth World output.

Pran Nath was born on 3 November 1918, into a wealthy family in Lahore, Pakistan. In the early 20th century, the city was known as the flower of the Punjab, with its own rich musical tradition. According to his students, Pran Nath painted an idyllic picture of the musical culture of Lahore during this period, in which Hindu and Muslim musicians would practise outdoors in different parts of the city, congregating to perform and exchange compositions, and to hang out with their friends, the wrestlers, with whom they formed a fraternity. Many great masters including Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and Pran Nath’s own guru Abdul Wahid Khan, lived in Lahore.

Pran Nath knew from an early age that his vocation was to be a musician, and his grandfather invited musicians into the home to perform in the evenings. But while many eminent Indian classical musicians come from families of musicians, and speak of parents whispering ragas or tal cycles to them as they sleep, Pran Nath’s mother wanted her son to pursue a law career, and, at the age of 13, gave him the choice of abandoning music or leaving home. So he left immediately, and wandered, looking for a teacher, until he came upon Abdul Wahid Khan at a music conference. Pran Nath claimed that he was able to copy every musician he heard until he encountered Wahid Khan, and on this basis decided to become his student.

Abdul Wahid Khan, along with his uncle Abdul Karim Khan, was one of the two major figures of the Kirana gharana, one of North India’s most important families of vocal music – an austere, pious man, with a powerful voice, an encyclopedic knowledge of raga, famed for his methodical elaboration of the alap, the slow improvisatory section of the raga. It is said that when he gave rare radio performances, while other singers would go home after the broadcast, Khansaheb could often be found 20 hours later, still performing the same raga. When asked once why he only practised two ragas, the morning raga Todi and the evening raga Darbari, he replied that, had the morning lasted for ever, he would have dropped the evening raga too.

Becoming a student of Wahid Khan was no easy matter. Pran Nath had no family connections, no money and was a Hindu while Wahid Khan was a devout Muslim. So, he worked for eight years as Wahid Khan’s household servant, before he was finally taken on as a disciple, at the urging of Wahid Khan’s cook. Even after that, life was not easy: Pran Nath was not allowed to practise in his guru’s presence, so he would go into the jungle at night to do so. Sometimes he was beaten if he sang a note incorrectly.

Pran Nath’s vocal abilities were recognised early on: he made his first appearance on All India Radio in 1937. However, the time that he was not serving his teacher he spent living at Tapkeshwar, naked except for a covering of ashes, and singing for God. It is likely that Pran Nath would have remained there, had Wahid Khan not ordered his student, in his guru dukshana (last request), to get married, become a householder and take his music out into the world. This Pran Nath did, moving to Delhi and marrying in 1949. That year, Wahid Khan died.

By all accounts, hearing Pran Nath in full flow at this time was an extraordinary experience. At the All India Music Conference in Delhi in 1953, attended by many of the giants of the classical music scene, Pran Nath’s performance of the rainy season raga Mian Ki Malhar stunned the 5000-strong crowd. Singer and early disciple Karunamayee recalled that when he hit the ‘sa’ note, “He held the breath of us all, collected our breath through his own breath, held it at one pitch and then let go. When he let go, we also let go, all 5000 people in the audience. It was a shock to me. All this can be done with music! And when he ended there was torrential rain! Suddenly he got up, he was very sad and frustrated and angry and said, ‘I’m not a musician, I’m only a teacher’, and walked off.”

Shattered by his guru’s death, and contemptuous of modern Indian society, Pran Nath was a moody, imposing figure during his Delhi days. He began teaching, and quickly gathered students, who were mostly reduced to silence by his skills. Singer and long-time student Sheila Dhar recalled in her memoirs: “His lessons consisted mainly in demonstrations of heavy, serious ragas in his own voice. Most of the time we listened in hypnotised states of awe. He had a way of exploring a single note in such detail that it turned from a single point or tone into a vast area that glowed like a mirage. Each of us encountered this magic at different times. Whenever it happened, it overwhelmed us like a religious experience. There was no question of our even trying to repeat this sort of thing. All we could do was to drink it all in and wait for a chance to participate in some undefined way in the distant future.”

The study of Indian classical music had undergone rapid transformation in the 20th century. The traditional guru-disciple relationship that Pran Nath had participated in became an increasingly rare thing by the middle of the century, as the patronage of the Maharajas and their courts disappeared. Radio, music festivals and recording encouraged a popularisation of classical music that favoured the light classical genres of thumri and ghazal over the intense, drawn out spaces of khayal and dhrupad, which Pran Nath was devoted to. After independence in 1947, the teaching of music was increasingly transferred to the universities. Pran Nath himself taught advanced classes in Hindustani classical vocal at Delhi University between 1960 and 1970 – a prestigious position, but one he took little pleasure in, believing that only daily, one-on-one study with a knowledgeable master over a sustained period could properly train a musician.

panditprannath02Among Pran Nath’s students in the 60s was Shyam Bhatnagar, an Indian emigré who ran a yoga academy in New Jersey. It was Bhatnagar who first brought recordings of Pran Nath home to America, where La Monte Young got to hear them. Young had been listening to Indian classical music since the mid-50s, and credits hearing the tambura sound on an early Ali Akbar Khan recording as one of the major influences on his groundbreaking sustained-tone pieces such as 1958’s Trio For Strings.

Throughout the 60s Young and his circle were listening to recordings of the great Indian masters. The Pran Nath recordings they heard in 1967, with their slow majestic alaps and extraordinarily precise intonation were at once new, but also uncannily similar to Young’s own music. “The fact that I was so interested in pitch relationships, the fact that I was interested in sustenance and drones, drew me toward Pandit Pran Nath,” he states. The track that fills one side of The Black Record (1969), Map of 49’s Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery, on which Young sings shifting, raga-like phrases, backed only by a drone produced by a sinewave generator and Marian Zazeela’s voice, was “heavily influenced by Pandit Pran Nath”, according to Young. “It included drones, and pitch relationships, some of which also exist in Indian classical music. It does not proceed according to the way a raga proceeds. It has very static sections… Raga is very directional, even though it has static elements, whereas a great deal of my music really is static.” Map Of 49’s Dream… reintroduced melody to the potent, austere sustained tones favoured in The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, the major work of the early 60s Theater Of Eternal Music ensemble.

In 1970, Young, Zazeela and Bhatnagar invited Pran Nath to America, after procuring grant money for him and a teaching position at the New School for Social Research in New York. In a piece written for the Village Voice in May 1970, headlined “The Sound Is God”, a euphoric Young enthused over Pran Nath’s intonation: “his singing was the most beautiful I had ever heard”. But although Young emphasized Pran Nath’s rock solid foundations in the Kirana vocal style, his interpretation of his teacher was hardly a traditional one. After praising Pran Nath’s perfect intonation and melodic abilities, the article launched into a discussion of the physics of sound, and the effect of different SOUND frequencies, measured in hertz, on neurons in the basilar membranes in the ear. “When a specific set of harmonically related frequencies is continuous or repeated,” Young concluded, “as is often the case in my music and Indian music, it could more definitively produce (or simulate) a psychological state that may be reported by the listener since the set of harmonically related frequencies will continuously trigger a specific set of the auditory neurons which in turn will continuously perform the same operation of transmitting a periodic pattern of impulses to the corresponding set of fixed points in the cerebral cortex.”

In the early 70s, Young demonstrated Pran Nath’s ability to produce and sustain very precise sound frequencies using an oscilloscope, and to this day, he is as likely to introduce a raga by expressing the tonic in hertz rather than more traditional means. The notion that all aesthetic experience, be it music, film or drug induced, is a form of programming of the nervous system, was a common one in the 60s. Inspired by Hindu scholar Alain Danielou, Young applied this idea to raga, and its concern for evoking specific moods by use of specific pitch relationships.

In May 1970, Pran Nath made his first trip to the West Coast, where he met Young’s long-time associate Terry Riley. Young, Zazeela and subsequently Riley all became formal disciples of Pran Nath, committing themselves to extensive study with him, and to providing his material needs in return for lessons. For many years, Pran Nath lived in Young and Zazeela’s loft while in New York, and in Riley’s loft in San Francisco, until in the mid-80s, in declining health after a heart attack in 1978, he moved into his own house in Berkeley, where he remained, for the most part, until his death on 13 June 1996. On both East and West Coasts, members of Sufi communities studied with Pran Nath, but in New York there was also Young and Zazeela’s gharana-like circle of downtown musicians.

During this period, Young, Zazeela and Riley, and later trumpeter Jon Hassell, accompanied Pran Nath on his return trips to India, often staying for extended periods of time to study music at a temple in Dehra Dun, where Pran Nath was temple musician to Swami Narayan Giriji, former temple keeper at Tapkeshwar. “We’d come to the temple early in the morning,” recalls Hassell, “and Swamiji would be 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 [balls of hashish and almond paste] and listen to the children sing, the arti bells clapping, the swallows overhead, the muezzin singing from the minaret nearby. I mean, it was total ecstasy!” These trips gradually evolved into a yearly ritual, which has continued under the guidance of Riley and West Coast Sufi teacher Shabda Kahn, who still take groups each year to visit Pran Nath’s sacred places. There, they would study with Kirana masters like Mashkor Ali Khan, a 45 year old blood relative of Abdul Wahid Khan, who commands a vast knowledge of ragas and a fiery vocal technique.

Young, Zazeela and Riley’s commitment to Pran Nath involved more than a superficial absorption of a few Indian mannerisms. For a decade and a half, Pran Nath lived in Young and Zazeela’s loft for a good part of each year, and the New York night owls were typically required to rise at 3am each day to prepare tea for their teacher, who slept at the other end of the loft. He would then perform his riaz [practice] and give them a lesson – if he chose to. “He was the head of the household,” recalls Young. “We were not allowed to have friends. We had to give up everything – rarely did we even get to visit our parents. He was very protective of us and extremely possessive of us. But we got the reward. The reward is, if you make the guru happy, then you get the lessons.” Much of the rest of the day would be spent taking care of his financial affairs, booking students and concerts, and raising money for dowries so that his three daughters in India could get married. Riley, Young and Zazeela all sacrificed their own careers while serving Guruji (as he was affectionately known), alienating patrons who thought they should be focusing on their own work. According to Henry Flynt, John Cale once quipped that it was Pran Nath who should be taking lessons from La Monte, since he was the one with the “hard sound”.

Another part of discipleship was teaching. “He ordered us to make his own school,” Young recalls, “the Kirana School for Indian Classical Music; and then he ordered us to teach. And when I said, ‘No, Guruji, I’m not ready,’ he said, ‘you have to do as I say, it’s not up to you’.” Pran Nath made a similar demand of Riley, and Riley, Young and Zazeela have continued teaching Kirana-style Indian classical vocal to this day. Conversely, Pran Nath began teaching at Mills College in Oakland in 1973, and continued until 1984.

Pran Nath was not without his detractors. Anyone hearing him perform after 1978 would have experienced only a shadow of his former powers, since he suffered a heart attack in that year and developed Parkinson’s disease during the following decade. Even in his prime, Pran Nath was an unorthodox performer, rejecting crowd pleasing duels with tabla players, for stretched out alaps, often dwelling on the first three notes of a raga for 15 minutes or more. “Sometimes,” recalls Riley, “in the middle of the raga he would suddenly stop and start singing another raga in a performance and it would feel fine. He would maybe sing one tone that would remind him of that other raga and he’d get so inspired he’d just go off into that.” Pran Nath himself cared little about building a public reputation: in India, he snubbed critics and patrons, insulted master musicians during their performances, and had an aversion to recording and radio work. Even in America, throwing in his lot with Young and the New York avant garde or the California Sufis was hardly a guaranteed road to fame and fortune. Aside from one track recorded with The Kronos Quartet in 1993 (“Aba Kee Tayk Hamaree”/“It Is My Turn, Oh Lord”, from Short Stories), there were no collaborations with Western artists, no ‘fusion’ experiments, no compromises. He didn’t care. “This business is only for the contentment of your soul,” he would say.

Although he was a firm believer in tradition, Pran Nath himself was an outsider in India. Famous singers including Bhimsen Joshi and Salamat & Nazakat Ali Khan (“They spoiled my lessons!”, he claimed in 1972) came to him to increase their knowledge of specific ragas, yet he himself never became a celebrity. “Those who know music know his place,” says The Hindustan Times’s music critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh. “He was not a musician with a performer personality: he was too intense, too withdrawn.” According to composer Charlemagne Palestine, Pran Nath was attracted to the American avant garde because “He also was out of his culture, 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 live in socially, as a normal member.” But despite Pran Nath’s reported fondness for Chivas Regal and watching television, he was not unduly impressed with the West either. Mathematician and composer Catherine Christer Hennix, another Pran Nath student and protegé of Young, recalls, “The only time I remember he was enthusiastic, we were in San Francisco. He liked to watch TV, and we were watching a programme about whales. He heard the whales sing and he started to cry. That was his most profound spiritual experience of the Western world.”