A Primer on Drone Music in Boing Boing

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.

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. “

2011 Annual Report on Drugs and Creativity

Jeremy Shaw, Unseen Potentials (2011).

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.

Collateral Damage

The Wire has been running an interesting series of columns called Collateral Damage in recent months — mostly in response to a provocative piece written by Kenneth Goldsmith celebrating the apparent triumph of quantity over quality in downloading cultures of the musical variety.  My own response to the issue is published in the latest issue of the magazine — you can read the column here.

The most important points I wanted to make in the column are: that copying in music didn’t begin with Napster, it’s essential to any musical culture or practice; that there’s something utopian about the current situation in which anyone with a computer has access to almost any sound recording made; that the resulting erosion of revenues from the sales of musical recordings isn’t in itself a valid reason to insist on more stringent intellectual property laws, which might in theory reduce the amount of copying of music, even if they (debatably) support indie music scenes.  Music scenes, indie or not are part of a broader economy and an economic crisis that affects most workers today. Music and sound are part of a global commons — they belong, or should belong, to everyone, and the challenge is to ensure that our economy and political systems support that commons.

Last paragraph: “One of the most intriguing compilations I’ve heard recently is called Music From Saharan Cellphones. It’s a collection of tracks discovered by Oregon based Christopher Kirkley while travelling in the Sahara, where nomads and urban youth now exchange music using Bluetooth and the memory cards on their cellphones. First available as a limited edition cassette, then ripped as downloadable MP3s, Kirkley is now using the micro-investment website Kickstarter to try to fund a vinyl release that also identifies and pays some of the artists involved. It’s a remarkable recording for many reasons, exposing us to new styles of music (Auto-Tuned desert blues, West African hiphop, tranced-out digital reggae and much more), and to the way people elsewhere in the world listen and distribute music. Is anything really resolved by declaring such exchanges unauthorised? That neither the Oregon hipster nor the Bedouin biker in Timbuktu pay artists for their work? That these tracks are distributed through computer and digital networks rather than physical sites across the city? That the recording quality is sometimes poor, and we can’t name the artists or songs, or work out whether the musicians, Bluetooth recording vendors or even Kirkley, with his microfinancing scheme, are all in it for the money? Sound itself remains indifferent to such questions. Something opens up here, a way of inhabiting the world together, a counter-globalisation, and that’s something we need to hear.”

UPDATE: Kirkley has written a beautiful piece on his blog Sahel Sounds describing the details of a Saharan mp3 market.

Catherine Christer Hennix Update

Photo by Laura Gianetti.

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

A Few More Reviews of In Praise of Copying

A busy time of the year for me, but I have a backlog of posts re. copying that I’m working on. In the meantime, here are few interesting recent reviews of In Praise of Copying.  First off Amy Ione in Leonardo Digital.  Then David Banash in Postmodern Culture.  Finally Mark Fisher in The Wire.  All well worth a look …

Vuvuzelas, South African House and the Politics of Drones Piece in The Wire

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.”

Catherine Christer Hennix, Drones and the Changing Same

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 ….

Shangaan Electro

I have a longish review of the terrific new Shangaan Electro CD in the latest issue of The WireShangaan is a collection of 180 b.p.m. plus electronic dance tracks from South Africa that’s causing quite a stir at the moment, partly because of videos of Shangaan dancers like this one of the Tshetsha Boys:

“Shangaan” refers to the Shangaan or Tsongha people who historically lived in a region spreading from Mozambique to northern areas of South Africa, many of whom today are migrant workers in places like Johannesburg. In the review I discuss the puzzling absence of cultural forms developed in actually existing African societies in discussions of Afro-futurism.  And the way that, in recent years, cutting edge electronic dance musics have emerged in various locations in Africa: notably Angolan kuduro, South African kwaito and house; couper decaler from the Cote D’Ivoire, hip-hop across the map; and more lo-fi stuff like the Congolese group Konono No. 1. A lot of these musics are highly local, yet produced in relation to very complex diasporic networks, in which the copying and reconfiguring of musical styles proliferates rapidly and productively.

One of the threads running through In Praise of Copying concerns the status of folk cultures today: their persistence in industrial societies through the use of creative acts of copying, many of which involve appropriations from imperial, colonial or globalized capitalist forms.  The whiteface clown costumes and Guantanamo jumpsuits in the above video remind me of the colonial appropriations/parodies of whiteness documented by Jean Rouch in his amazing ethnographic documentary film Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters) in which we see a group of villagers in Niger in the 1950s, possessed by spirits taking the form of colonial administrators.

Different time, different place of course, although intriguingly, Fritz Kramer discusses Tsongha rituals of possession by “foreign spirits” in his book The Red Fez: Art and Spirit Possession in Africa. Shangaan looks like a pretty secular scene tho.  Nozinja, producer of the tracks found on Shangaan, insists that his use of samplers and digital electronics actually connects back to traditional Shangaan music which he notes was also “very fast”. While the adoption of guitar and bass in 1970s “Tsongha disco” music slowed things down to 110 b.p.m., Nozinja’s sampling of marimba sounds which are then played on a keyboard or looped makes possible a revival of an older form.

I find the politics of musical/dance scenes like Shangaan interesting. I recall Slavoj Zizek saying recently that one had to look to the townships, Mike Davis’ “planet of slums”, for the production of new political forms and practices.  I agree with Steve Goodman‘s caution at the end of his recent book Sonic Warfare, concerning overinterpreting the kinds of music scenes we find today in the Afro-diaspora. But I think the least one can say is that post-hiphop electronic dance scenes distributed around the world, often in heavily locked down locations, are interested in one another, and are talking to one another.  Sometimes. And that’s an intriguingly rare concrete example of “autre-mondialisation” or “counter-globalization” at work …

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”.