I’ve been interested in drone-based music for a while and have written various pieces about it, including this overview that was originally published in a book edited by The Wire . Recently, Boing Boing asked me to write a guide to drone, so here it is. I’ve tried to cover recent mutations of drone such as the post-hiphop drone pop sound of Tri Angle Records, and the drone metal of Earth and Sun O))). Writing the piece also got me interested in drones in nature, cosmic drone vibrations such as the “sounds” that a black hole emits, and drone apps such as the marvelous SrutiBox and Droneo.
The latest issue of The Wire has an excellent section on bass in contemporary music and theory, which includes two pieces from me, one on UK soundsystem Aba-Shanti and their heavy vibrations, the other on the deepest bass sound in the universe, emitted from a black hole. I also suggested a piece on the humming sounds of Putumayo shamanism, as described by my friend and teacher Michael Taussig, and the following piece about plumbing sonic mental depths, as described by another teacher of mine, Sri Karunamayee:
“In an interview conducted in Delhi in 2001, the Indian singer and philosopher Karunamayee, a long term student of Hindustani raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, teacher of La Monte Young, Terry Riley and many others, explained to me how she first learnt to sing: “At the age of six, good teachers were coming and teaching my brother and sister. But I was very small and it was not considered necessary for me. But I had a gift. Whenever I heard some music it just became ingrained in me. My consciousness of silence kept my slate very clean. Most of the time I enjoyed the silence, even when everyone was talking, I felt a kind of echo of the silence, as if I was in a tunnel, untouched by any of it. Whatever I heard was imprinted, and I found myself singing in that way. Nobody cared. I would just put my head down and start going sa-re-ga-ma. Sometimes I would hear my sound very clearly. I would think: it may be that my sound is not heard, but I can think of music! And holding that thread, not of the sound that I’m making, but of the concept of sound, with that I would go up the scales for many octaves. And then I would say, alright, let me come down, keeping the thread, and I would find my voice becoming audible, very clear, and then deep, and then less clear, more unheard, but I could go deep also. This was my favorite exercise. I would go higher and higher like the birds at noontime in the sky. Then I would imagine that somebody is taking water out of a well. You can go as deep as you want. There is no limit on either side, up or down. So I experienced infinity in height and depth through sound and silence. It gives you control over your mind. A thread of sound. “
Creative Capital/The Warhol Foundation just posted the audio of my keynote talk at the their Arts Writers convening in Philadelphia last August. They asked me to speak about drugs and creativity, and this gave me an opportunity to revisit the work I’d done on drugs and the arts in my book The Roads of Excess: A History of Writers and Drugs in the early 2000s.
As you can hear on the audio recording, mostly my argument was that the heroic age of literary and artistic experimentation with drugs is over, even if many of the questions provoked by the existence of psychoactive substances remain unanswered. You can see it in Vancouver based artist Jeremy Shaw’s fascinating installation piece, DMT from 2004, where the gap between the noumenal quality of the experience and the banality of the images of those perhaps under the influence or their narratives is a vast one. Whatever the quality of the experience, it is basically unrepresentable, and thus beyond the sphere of art. Contrast this if you like with someone like Henri Michaux’s attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to write and draw under the influence of mescaline.
In place of this kind of art, the most interesting drug cultural artefacts have been TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire and Weeds. But there’s little attempt to represent drug experiences in those shows, and all the excitement and drama comes from the fact that drugs are an economic and legal proposition. It’s almost as though people now get high on business or the law, the way they used to on drugs. I find that an amazing and troubling proposition. In the talk, I looked at some of Ryan Trecartin’s recent video pieces, which are strikingly psychedelic, but whose psychedelia mimics and amplifies the self-distorting fx of corporate training videos and reality TV, and is without reference to drugs.
Talk of drugs and economy brought me back to research I’m currently doing on William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s collage manual, The Third Mind, and Burroughs’ still unassimilated argument that the broader lesson of drug addiction is that we almost always build our reality pictures based on what he calls “the algebra of need”. And that need can be and is manufactured — this corresponding to what Zizek and others today call ideology.
For me this opens up an interesting way of thinking about the contemporary impasse of the arts, whether writing or visual arts or for that matter music. If the presentation of reality itself happens mostly through the manufacture and manipulation of need, what can art be, other than one more form of participation in the manufacture of our need for certain kinds of reality picture? Is it a question of distinguishing between false needs and real ones? Or do “real needs” become the primary site of ideological capture … i.e. the thing that you submit to believing. Conversely, would an art that refused any discourse of need have any meaning or function whatsoever? Do we need to have needs, even beyond the biological imperatives that seem so fundamental? David Levi-Strauss asked me: why “need” and not “desire”? It was a really good question … maybe this is a very 2012 answer but it seems very difficult to think about desire today without also thinking about what limits or structures desire. It unsettles me to think about need and I think that’s a good thing.
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 finally got to write about my love for South African house music in the current (January 2011) issue of The Wire. I’ve been asked to write an “epiphany” piece for The Wire for nearly a decade but I’ve always loathed the word “epiphany” so I was never able to do it. Hearing the roar of the vuvuzelas at the World Cup earlier this year got me thinking about drones as a global, popular phenomenon, and in particular about my favorite South African house track of the last year, JR’s “Show Dem (Make the Circle Bigger)” with its spluttering vuvuzela-like bass sound:
I’m fascinated by the rise of house (sometimes known as kwaito) in South Africa in the post-apartheid years, and the global spread of a highly local queer black sound coming out of Chicago and New York in the 1980s. Rob of Wack Magic was telling me the other night that they struggle with the indie kids’ resistance to four on the floor beats like house, but house seems to be able to renew itself in so many different ways and contexts, and there’s a thread of liberation that runs through many of the forms it takes. An excerpt from my piece:
“What was it really that we were hearing when we listened to the vuvuzelas? I came to think of it, perhaps naively, as the sound of the global South, the buzzing hive sound of the people of the world, contaminating the otherwise clean hyperspace of the globalized spectacle of soccer, now trademarked and sold to us by FIFA. A reminder that you can’t send a message without distortion entering in, and that if you listen to the messages of global capital, they will always be accompanied by their subaltern support, the global multitude. Just as I love the way that drones piss people off, I loved the appalled reaction of many commentators to the vuvuzelas, and the calls for these trumpets and the drones they created to be banned.”
A heavy synthesizer drone fills the air, like something out of early Tangerine Dream. For a moment I can’t believe I’m actually hearing it. I’m standing in the bookstore at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. An elephant at the temple next door is giving blessings with his trunk. There is music in ashrams of course – devotional singing in groups, bhajans, chants – but this is different, the music unfolds slowly, some strange kind of fusion of Debussy, prog rock and raga, powerful and heavy. I ask one of the staff who it is and I’m told that it’s by Sunil, a former scientist who lived in the ashram for decades and began composing keyboard and later synthesizer music at the encouragement of one of the ashram’s two founders, The Mother, partner of the ashram’s namesake, Bengali poet, mystic and nationalist hero Sri Aurobindo. Sunil composed music in honor of the New Year each year from 1959 to 1998, and also set many hours of Aurobindo’s remarkable epic poem Savitri to music. I ask where I can buy the music but no one knows. They just call the music “ashram music”. I’m told that maybe someone at another office can burn me some mp3s, but nothing is for sale.
Although the ashram itself has proved itself adapt at running guest and publishing houses and a variety of other businesses which sustain the community, Sunil’s music was made as an act of devotion, and outside the visionary community founded by Aurobindo and the Mother it is almost unknown. It’s a remarkable story, but not unique. There is Alice Coltrane’s retreat from the jazz scene and commercial recordings to a California ashram where she sang and played, occasionally issuing cassettes of devotional music under the name of Swamini Turiyasangitananda that were available only at the ashram. Or Oliver Messiaen, who played the church organ at services at La Trinité in Paris from 1931 to his death in 1992. And this was not Messiaen’s only work outside of the conventional space of the concert hall. His famous “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed in the Stalag VIII-A concentration camp where the composer was interned during World War II, and received its performance in the camp for an audience of prisoners and prison guards with Messiaen playing a busted up old piano.
Many performers have had parallel careers performing and participating in religious communities – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan continued performing at Sufi shrines in Pakistan after his recordings became a fixture of yoga classes in the West. In other religious communities, including Christian Pentecostal churches, everybody sings and everybody participates and there is no audience. The line between producer and consumer is erased — and participants would probably claim that God (or Gods, or spirits) is the producer and the audience too. Communes offer another version of this — Amon Duul in Munich 1967, the early Faust in Würme emerged as “rock groups” out of much more undefined sets of collective activities, of which making music was one kind of ritual, complete with “om” chants, “tribal” percussion jams and other spiritual elements. Or Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, a group emerging out of a commune of 100 people living in a mansion in Los Angeles, selling home made LPs for $1 in their health food restaurant. Or the Sun Ra Arkestra in Philadelphia, whose performances always felt like looking in on a private festival or ritual, complete with esoteric language and style. Although not overtly religious, such groups made music as a way of exploring and expressing an ecstatic community that was an end in itself, and a “spiritual” one at that. Making and selling recordings could be an act of evangelism, a crazy get-rich-quick scheme fuelled by “cosmic” intuitions, or simply a humble attempt to make a living and support the community.
Indian classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath thought that students recording his lessons, or even notating what he was singing, was a bad idea and a corruption of what the music really is. Furthermore, he was against the recording of music and found even amplification problematic. He lived for a while in a famous Siva cave in the foothills of the Himalaya, singing for God and the community living in the cave – supporting himself with occasional trips to Delhi to perform for All India Radio. Practice, and the perfection of it also becomes an end in itself. Practice is of course a part of many music cultures from the decades of finger studies of classical pianists to weekly punk rock band practice. But the word practice also has a religious meaning, when the discipline of making music is performed with the intention of perfecting oneself before God. In such a practice, one might never actually utter a sound – in some traditions, the repetition of mantras, sacred or magical phrases, is thought to be more powerful if it is entirely mental; I’ve also been told of Indian classical musicians who mentally practice scales hundreds of octaves above or below those found on a piano, as an act of concentration.
At the highest level the mystery of music concerns the manifestation of sound as a set of powerfully affective structures that come from … who knows where? But if music is a gift then the act of listening also becomes creative and potentially devotional. Thus Cage’s 4’ 33” or Philip Corner’s “I Can Walk Through the World as Music”, both pieces where music and meditation come close to one another, in the act of paying attention to the actually existing sound environment. This act of paying attention could take you a long way – in various yogic traditions, one is advised to listen to “the unstruck sound”, the sound that remains when all that is temporary fades away again after manifesting … the original drone, Nad Brahma – “sound is God”.