I wrote a profile of minimalist composer, philosopher and blues musician Catherine Christer Hennix for The Wire last year to coincide with the release of her masterwork from the 1970s, The Electric Harpsichord. Hennix lives in Berlin these days, and has a band called The Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage which played a series of shows this summer at the Grimmuseum. The band features the amazing Amelia Cuni, to my mind the foremost practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal music outside of the south Asian diaspora, and a master of the most austere of classical vocal styles, dhrupad. You can hear a twenty minute recording of Hennix et al on Soundcloud — the first time that anyone not living in Berlin has had a chance to hear these guys. The most obvious comparison of course is the Theater of Eternal Music, especially in later days when La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela were using sine waves, and were joined by folks like Jon Hassell. But Cuni doesn’t “just” sustain a drone tone, she moves between notes in the style of an alap singer. And there’s something about the way the sound pulsates, in a way that’s almost monstrous, that’s peculiar to Hennix. At times you can’t tell whether the sound is happening externally or actually inside your skull. The sound seems to surge, but the surge is, well, mathematical, not in the sense of something cold or formal, but in the sense of an iteration that extends to infinity … you can somehow feel or maybe hear the matrix of tones beyond what’s actually audible.
I’ve spent the last few weeks finishing a profile of Swedish mathematician/visual artist/composer Catherine Christer Hennix for The Wire, in honor of the recent release of her 35 year old sustained tone masterpiece The Electric Harpsichord. The conversation spiraled off in many ways, from mathematical logic to quantum field theory to the Swedish jazz scene in the 1960s – take a look, it’ll be in the October issue.
It also got me thinking about drones some more, and why they can be such powerful audio experiences. My general hunch is that it has to do with sameness, which is a topic I became fascinated with in writing In Praise of Copying. Mostly we celebrate difference, diversity, novelty in our society. We associate sameness with fascist conformity, boredom, lack of imagination. In some ways of course, there is a sameness to things today that is disturbing: we value diversity but all diversity today has to be channeled through the marketplace, and with globalization, an increasing uniformity of places, cultures, societies. But maybe, as Alain Badiou says in his Ethics, the problem is finding the right kind of sameness. I note that Jacques Derrida, in his original essay on “Differance” actually wrote that “we provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.” Somehow, that sameness dropped out of the picture as post-structuralism developed, and differance became mere difference. What did Derrida mean? Approaching this problem through Buddhist philosophy, I come to the notion of “nonduality” or, more clumsily but maybe more helpfully, “nonconceptual sameness”, meaning the nonexistence of concepts that allow for the elaboration of difference.
I think what some people find irritating about drone musics is their sameness, nonconceptual or otherwise. But to me that irritation is a sign of resistance to what’s going on, because there’s always something new going on when you let yourself experience a drone fully. La Monte Young argued that “tuning is a function of time” and that as you tune into the harmonics in a drone, you experience new aspects of it. Your own relationship to that continuous sound changes because second by second you are changing, physically and cognitively. At the same time though, when you relax into the sound, it can be ecstatic, and that is where I would locate the “nonconceptual sameness”. You loosen up your own sense of yourself and something opens up. Somehow, the drone lets you concentrate … on what? The sound? On your own psyche experiencing the sound? Both probably. I think there’s a taste of the power of the drone in all copying, since a copy is a repetition, just as a drone is a repetition. That’s really what I meant by “in praise of copying”.
The Electric Harpsichord is an uncanny piece. Henry Flynt wasn’t exaggerating when he called it “a revelation”. I’ve listened to it a number of times over the last decade and I invariably have the disconcerting but elating experience of the ground beneath me melting about half way through the piece. This is presumably what Hennix and Flynt meant when they coined the term HESE (“Hallucinogenic Ecstatic Sound Experience”) to describe works like EH in the late 1970s. When it was composed/performed, EH was part of a whole cluster of multidisciplinary efforts that Hennix was involved in ranging from visual art works to abstract Noh plays, to treatises on logic such as “17 Points on Intensional Logics for Intransitive Experiences, 1969-1979” and “Toposes and Adjoints”. Aside from a remarkable journal issue Io #41 published in 1989 (subtitle: “Being = Space x Action”) this work was never published. The Io issue is remarkable: it also features work by Hennix’s mathematical mentor Alexander Esenin-Volpin, a founder of the human rights movement in Russia as well as the mathematical school of ultra-intuitionism, a key essay by Flynt, work by poets George Quasha and Charles Stein, and a lucid introduction to Hennix’s work by Stein.
As a non-specialist in the outer regions of advanced mathematics, it’s hard to evaluate how solid the mathematical work is, and how directly it can be related to the soundworks that Hennix was producing. Yet the argument, made by both Hennix and Flynt, that one could extract a method for producing ecstatic sound works that is based on a radically reworked philosophy that takes in and appropriates mathematical logic, amongst other things, remains an intriguing one. Who even has that kind of ambition today? The notion that a radically different science or set of scientific goals could or would emerge from a different set of values to those that our own societies are built around today could be a very powerful one, taking us beyond techno-fetishism of both the libertarian and Marxist kinds on the one hand, and Luddite attitudes on the other. A lot is asked of those who want to take this path … but is that such a bad thing?
Finally it comes down to the work, and, archivally, there’s not that much of it: EH was only performed once, though there are other unreleased recordings by Hennix from the 1970s. A number of Flynt’s HESE-related recordings, as is a duo recording with Hennix entitled “Dharma Warriors”. On the other hand, Hennix is alive and well and living in Berlin, where she now has a band called the Chorasan Time-Court Mirage, featuring the marvellous Italian born dhrupad vocalist Amelia Cuni. A demo recording that I’ve listened to is pretty mesmerizing: a digitally produced drone, with Hilary Jeffery’s trombone and Hennix’s voice. It’s trance inducing but not New Age at all! Definitely a work in progress ….
I’m participating in the Talking Songs series at the excellent semi outlaw social space Double Double Land, here in downtown Toronto, next Wednesday, along with Adam Litovitz and Alia O’Brien. Being asked to choose three to five songs and talk about what’s interesting about them is like … dancing about architecture. I know Elvis Costello intended that comment as an insult but dancing is always about architecture … so: if you’re in Toronto, drop by!
Double Double Land, 209 Augusta, TO, Wednesday, September 15, 8 pm
MARCUS BOON talks about “Genealogies of Global House” or “Chopping and Screwing from Terry Riley to DJ Screw” or “The Electric Harpsichord” or …
ALIA O’BRIEN talks about “International Feel: Hard Rock Toward and From the Middle East (1967-1979)”
ADAM LITOVITZ talks about “Osiris of the Shit: Re-evaluating Wu-Tang”