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.
“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”
Once upon a time, there were enormous halls, which could be found in many cities, where you could go and listen to the raw blast of Just Intonation tuned drone music every week, under a cascade of multi-colored lights. It was said by those who had visited these halls that this was the loudest sound in the world, and people crowded into these halls week after week, to be saturated in sound and light, and have ecstatic experiences. I am not talking about the lofts of downtown Manhattan where in the early 1960s, La Monte Young, John Cale, Tony Conrad and friends created the colossal drones of the Theater of Eternal Music, from which the Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine and most of what is best in late twentieth century Western culture issued forth. Nor am I talking about the communes and basements of West Germany and Switzerland in the 1970s, where Can, Amon Duul and Ashra Tempel and company took keyboard driven raga rock into interstellar overdrive. I am not even talking about the legendary drum and bass, techno and trance clubs that sprung up all over the world in the 1990s, wherever you could find a power socket or a generator, where synthesizer-created drones provided a trance-inducing bedrock for a Dionysian festival of percussive and pharmacological experiment.
There was no electricity in the cathedrals of medieval Europe, like Notre Dame in Paris, where enormous pedal organs tuned to specific harmonically related pitches accompanied drone or sustained tone based vocal recitations written by composers such as Leonin and Perotin, or the Gregorian chant masters. Operated pneumatically, using a bellows, the organs were vast, and the cathedral functioned as a resonant chamber that amplified the organ so that the space was saturated with rich overtones, as strange psychedelic color effects created by the stained glass windows illuminated the walls and the faces of the crowd. An English monk, Wulstan, described the newly built Winchester church organ in 960 AD: “Twice six bellows are ranged in a row, and fourteen lie below … worked by seventy strong men … the music of the pipes is heard throughout the town, and the flying fame thereof is gone out over the whole country.” “No one,” it was said, “was able to draw near and hear the sound, but that he had to stop with his hands his gaping ears.”
This was not the underground. This was at the very center of European culture – the DisneyWorld of its time. But with the growing use of the keyboard in the fourteenth century, and the gradual adoption of standardized tuning systems, such as the equal tempered scale which has dominated Western music from the eighteenth century until this day, the drone disappeared from view. Because the equal tempered scale is slightly out of tune from the point of view of the natural harmonics of sound (it “equalizes” the differences in pitch between notes on a keyboard to simplify and standardize tuning), the matrix of harmonies that makes the drone so pleasing when a Just Intonation tuning system (i.e. one using the natural harmonics of sound, and the laws that determine which pitches are in tune with each other) is used, is lost. The word drone became an insult, an indication of boredom, repetitiveness, lack of differentiation. What happened?
It’s true: drones remain boring, irritating even to many people. When Lou Reed issued his dronework homage to La Monte Young and Xenakis, Metal Machine Music in 1976, it was reviled by most of the unsuspecting fans who bought it expecting the catchy pop tunes of Transformer. If by drones we mean music that is built around a sustained tone or tones, there is something about a sound that does not shift, something about the experience of a sound heard for an extended duration that nags at consciousness, interrupts the pleasure it takes in the infinite variety of notes, combinations and changes. Or pulls it towards something more fundamental. Which is more important? That which changes, or that which stays the same? It need not be a question of either/or. In fact, it cannot be. We cannot block out the fact that we exist as finite beings within eternity or infinity – that’s how it is, whether we like it or not. But at least when it comes to man-made sounds, to music, there is no such thing as a music that remains the same for an infinite duration. Even La Monte Young’s extended tone pieces, such as his sinewave tone pieces from the 1960s like Drift Studies, or the current 8 year Dream House: Sound and Light installation started and will stop — although, Young has made the silences at the beginning and end of some of his compositions part of the piece, thus extending them into eternity, and sound’s “eternal return”. And if the music did not stop, we would stop, or change. We are changing as we listen, both physically, as the cells of our body grow, die and are replaced, and mentally, as our concentration shifts from one aspect of the sound we are listening to, to another, as our position in the room subtly shifts, resulting in different combinations of tones heard.
Beneath all that changes, is there a constant sound that is to be heard? Can we experience eternity right now, in sound? In India, one way of saying drone is “Nada Brahma” – “God is sound”, or “sound is God”. What we call music is ahata nad – “the struck sound”, but behind, inside this sound is anahata nad – “the unstruck sound”: the sound of silence. The relationship between the struck and the unstruck sound can be modeled in different ways. Indeed, at the moment when the drone re-emerged after World War 2 in America, with La Monte Young’s Trio for Strings (1958), we can see divergent but complementary models very clearly in John Cage and La Monte Young’s attitudes to sound. As Kyle Gann has written: “In Cage’s aesthetic, individual musical works are metaphorically excerpts from the cacophonous roar of all sounds heard or imagined. Young’s archetype, equally fundamental, attempts to make audible the opposite pole: the basic tone from which all possible sounds emanate as overtones. If Cage stood for Zen, multiplicity, and becoming, Young stands for yoga, singularity and being.”
Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952), with its “silent” non-performance at the piano forces the listener to become aware of the persistent omnipresence of sounds within silence and vice versa, both inside the listener and in the environment of the concert hall. Young’s Composition No. 7 (1960), which consists of a notated B and F# together with the instruction “to be held for a long time”, provides a single constant sound that changes as what Young has called “listening in the present tense” develops. Freed, at least temporarily, from the distraction of change and time, the listener enters the stream of the sound itself and discovers that what seemed to be a single drone sound shifts and changes as the listener scans and focuses on different parts of it, opening up into a universe of overtones, microtones and combination tones. Of course, this experience is entirely dependent on correct tuning. A B and a F# on a conventionally tuned piano won’t sound that amazing – nor will a drone that’s tuned this way. Young’s interest in sustained tones and Just Intonation, which he grew increasingly fascinated by in the early 1960s, support each other, because Just Intonation brings out the full spectrum of overtones which make drones so satisfying to the ear. This music may be “minimalist” in terms of instructions, but the resulting sound, as Terry Riley quipped is actually “maximal” – or, to use a word that Young says he once preferred, it’s “meta-music”.
Why has the drone become such a key part of the contemporary music scene, from Keiji Haino’s hurdy gurdy and fx pedaled guitars to the spiritualized pop of Madonna, the ecstatic jazz of Alice Coltrane or film soundtracks such as Ligeti’s for 2001: A Space Odyssey? Why do we want to be immersed in what David Toop has called the ocean of sound? Marshall McLuhan defined the electronic universe that opened up after World War 2 as being one of participation, immersion, acoustics, in contrast to the predominately visual culture that dominated the west for the last 500 years, which was a culture of spectators, distance and writing. Drones, embodying and manifesting universal principles of sound and vibration, in a fundamental sense belong to nobody, and invite a sense of shared participation, collective endeavor and experience that is very attractive to us. It is this aesthetic of participation that connects them with the punk scene. In 1976, Mark P. in Sniffing Glue drew a chart with 3 chords on it and said “now go out and form a band” – and within a couple of years, guitar bands like Wire, and its side projects like Dome had spiraled off from these chords into sustained-tone drone space. But today, even one of those chords might be too much sound. “If you ever thought feedback was the best thing that ever happened to the guitar, well, Lou just got rid of the guitars,” quipped Lester Bangs regarding Metal Machine Music.
Just as the drone can cause powerful shifts in individual consciousness, so it also re-organizes traditional hierarchies of music production and consumption. Drones are ill-suited to commercial recording formats such as the CD, due to their length, the way they rely on the acoustics of the room in which they’re produced, and the paradoxically intimate relationship with visual culture that they often have. The CD of Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire, with it’s warm resonant humming tone, is gorgeous, but it hardly captures the original sound installation from which the sound recording was made – just as no sound recording of La Monte Young’s work can capture Marian Zazeela’s complementary light sculptures, and no movie soundtrack recording can supply the experience of actually seeing the film it comes from.
The battle between Young, Zazeela, Cale and Conrad and over who “owns” the recordings of the Theater of Eternal Music rehearsals and performances embodies basic contradictions contained in the rediscovery of the drone in Western culture. Young discovered sustained tones in a sense that could be covered by traditional notions of authorship and copyright, but, as he himself once asked, how do you copyright a relationship between two pitches? Or for that matter the mathematical principles governing just intonation pitch relationships which Tony Conrad pointed out to Young in 1964? From the point of view of the performers, the creation of drones, even according to someone else’s instructions, feels like an intense collective experience and endeavor. Newer groups like Vibracathedral Orchestra, or Bardo Pond, or the Boredoms have returned to the tribal spirit of drone creation, in which drones are collectively improvised. Meanwhile, the profusion of electronic drone based musics, of microsound, lowercase, minimalist house, ambient etc. on labels like 12k, Mille Plateaux or raster extends this idea of community in a different way, as the line between producer and consumer is blurred by limited edition CDs and CD-Rs, which are mostly bought or exchanged by those who are part of the scene, and themselves making drone based music.
Drones are everywhere, in beehives, the ocean, the atom and the crowd. La Monte Young speaks of tuning tamburas to a 60 hz pitch, which is the speed at which electricity is delivered in the USA (in Europe it’s 50 hz). Unless we live totally off the grid, our lives are tuned to this sound pitch, like instruments. The word “vibration” has come to stand in for all that people find loathsome about hippy, New Age, California spiritual vagueness, but, as a series of dogmatic but useful books like Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Nada Brahma: The World is Sound and Peter Michael Hamel’s Through Music to the Self have documented, from the point of view of physics, everything vibrates and therefore can be said to exist as sound, rather than merely “having a sound”.
The word vibration entered sixties culture through Sufism, and in particular through the work of an Indian musician and philosopher Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan, who traveled to New York for the first time in 1910. In his classic book, The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word, Khan sets out a doctrine in which sound, movement and form emerge out of silence: “every motion that springs forth from this silent life is a vibration and a creator of vibrations.” It’s important to state this clearly: according to Khan, matter and solid objects are manifestations of the power of vibration and sound, and not vice versa. Sound comes first, not matter. So, the universe is sound, and the drone, which sustains a particular set of vibrations and sound frequencies in time, has a very close relationship to what we are, to our environment, and to the unseen world that sustains us. Khan: “With the music of the Absolute the bass, the undertone, is going on continuously; but on the surface beneath the various keys of all the instruments of nature’s music, the undertone is hidden and subdued. Every being with life comes to the surface hidden and subdued. Every being with life comes to the surface and again returns whence it came, as each note has its return to the ocean of sound. The undertone of this existence is the loudest and the softest, the highest and the lowest; it overwhelms all instruments of soft or loud, high or low tone, until all gradually merge in it; this undertone always is, and always will be.” The traditional name given to this never-ending undertone, which has been repeated by musicians from Coltrane and Can to Anti-Pop Consortium is OM, and by saying OM, the monk or the musician tunes into perfect sound forever.
Drones can embody the vastness of the ocean of sound, but they also provide a grid, or thread, through which it can be navigated. La Monte Young has talked about using his sustained tone pieces as a way of sustaining or producing a particular mood by stimulating the nervous system continually with a specific set of sound vibrations – thus providing a constant from which the mind can move, back and forth. In a recent interview, one of Pandit Pran Nath’s disciples, Indian devotional singer Sri Karunamayee pointed out that the tambura, the four stringed drone instrument that accompanies most Indian classical music performances “gives you a feeling of groundedness, so you do not get lost as in Western music. It is said that even Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning and music, when she enters the Nada Brahma, the ocean of sound, feels that it is so impenetrable, so profound, and is concerned less she, the goddess of music may be lost, inundated by it. So she places two gourds around her, in the form of Veena, and then she is guided by them into it.” Indian singers love to say that to be between two tamburas is heaven. They mean it literally, for the correctly tuned and amplified tambura contains a world of infinite pitch relationships. And to be perfectly in tune with universal vibration means to be one with God.
Do we have to believe in the drone’s spiritual qualities in order to experience them? The answer is no. Although in the Christian world, the sacred is thought of primarily as a matter of faith and belief, there is another view of the sacred that is concerned with practice, and the use of sacred technologies. Although the drone has often been used as a sacred technology, both in the East and the West, there is nothing that says it has to be so. Indeed, like all former sacred technologies in the modern era, including drugs, dance and ritual, erotic play or asceticism, musicians have appropriated and reconfigured the drone’s power in many ways that question traditional notions of the sacred. It has been said repeatedly that drones are, in the words of a Spacemen 3 record for “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to.” The Theater of Eternal Music were famous for their use of hashish and other substances, which allowed for extended periods of concentration and sensitization to micro-intervals. The Velvet Underground made explicit this link, with Cale’s droning viola underpinning Reed’s vocal on “Heroin”. More recently, Coil, in their Time Machines, have produced a series of long drone pieces, each named after one of the psychedelics. Conversely, writers like René Daumal who have described their drug experiences, have reported experiencing their own identities as sustained tones.
In fact the drone is a perfect vehicle for expressing alienation from conventional notions of the sacred – either existentially, through a cultivation of “darkness”, as Keiji Haino, dressed in black, with his hurdy gurdy and fx pedals, has done; or through a music that emphasizes mechanism and dissonance in imitation of the drone of the machinery of industrial society (hence “industrial music” and Throbbing Gristle’s early work in alienated sound). In his essay on Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Lester Bangs dwelled on the “utterly inhuman” quality of Reed’s drone, and what he saw as Reed’s deliberate attempt at negating the human for “metal” and “machines”, and of the masochistic pleasure that he and other noise lovers took in the experience of depersonalization and subjugation to the sounds of machinery. Both of these kinds of alienation are present in the dark, negative, profane spirituality that we find in various recent mutant drone subgenres: dronecore, dark ambient, “isolationist”, with their moody horror film sound.
From the modern viewpoint, drones are effective because of their relationship to the void that existentialists believe surrounds human activity. In 1927 Georges Bataille spoke of the universe as “formless”, and all of “official” human culture as an attempt to resist this fundamental fact, which reduced the cosmos to nothing more than “a spider or a gob of spit.” There is something of this quality of formlessness at work in “dark” drones, with their dissonant tones, the endless decay, distortion and degradation of pure tones, in the name of entropic noise. This formlessness, which blurs and loosens the boundaries of individual identity, could be the source of the ecstatic, “high” quality that often comes with drone music. If we take away Bataille’s existential pessimism, we can see how the formlessness of the drone leads us to use words like “abstract” or “ambient” to describe it. Indeed, the word “drone” itself is used by reviewers and musicians alike to stand in for a whole realm of musical activity that is difficult to describe using words, because drones lack the series of contrasts and shifts that give music form or definition. But does that mean that drones are truly formless, or do they embody deeper aspects of musical form?
It would be easy to say that the sacred spiritual qualities of the drone were connected with harmony, and the consonance of different pitches – thus the saccharine sweetness of New Age music with its crude harmonies – and that the profane, modern drone is connected with dissonance, with the exploration and equalization of forbidden pitch relationships. But the Just Intonation system actually moves beyond such crude distinctions. To begin with, it should be pointed out that the equal tempered scale is itself slightly out of tune, i.e. dissonant, while certain pitch combinations that are in fact in tune according to the physics of sound will sound dissonant or “flat” at first to ears that have heard nothing but music in equal temperament. Just as there is a black magic and a white magic, so there are harmonious combinations of pitches that create all kinds of moods. Think of the diversity of ragas, all of which are tuned according to just intonation scales, from the sweetness of a spring raga like Lalit to a dark, moody raga like Malkauns. There are dark harmonies as well as light ones.
In fact, the feedback which is so key to alt rock’s embrace of the drone (My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realize” and Jesus and Mary Chain’s music for example), based as it is on the amplification of the resonant frequencies from a sound source, is by definition in harmony – the feedback being composed of naturally occurring overtones within a sound. What we call noise is often merely a different kind of harmony, and the celebration of it in post-Velvets guitar culture is a celebration of harmony. That’s why it feels so good. It’s the raw power of vibrations. Keiji Haino has talked of his desire, when he does “covers” of pop songs in his Aihiyo project, to “destroy things that already existed” and to liberate sound from the “constraint” of the song. But his noise-scapes can never truly destroy song, for the pleasures of song and noise enjoy secret common ground. Haino may replace banale clichéd sound relationships with powerful fundamental ones — but these are already actually contained inside many pop songs, waiting to be liberated by amplification, by being sustained over time. When it’s at its most satisfying, noise, like pop, embodies the laws of harmony, and universal sound.
Depersonalization, alienation, spiritual kitsch, immersive sacred sound: how do we reconcile the different uses to which drones can be put? I don’t believe, as Hamel and Berendt do, that anything good can come from lecturing people that they’re bad boys and girls who should eat their spiritual spinach. I don’t believe that theory should control practice and bully it with claims of expertise either. It was Cage and the minimalists (or Louis Armstrong maybe) that finally dispatched that notion after centuries of the composer’s hegemony. We know very well by now that expertise in music is a matter of coming up with the goods. Indeed, drones have always been as much a part of folk music as sacred or “classical” music – think of the bagpipes or the many stringed instruments that have a drone string. But in this respect, the lack of understanding of what sound is that informs much of the contemporary drone scene is revealing. A new piece of software is developed, a new synth, a new trick with an fx pedal, which sounds great for a few months, is quickly passed around and imitated, and then exhausted. Nothing is learnt, just the iteration of possible combinations surrounding happy accidents, and momentary pulses of novelty. In contrast, the drone school surrounding Young, which is notable for Young’s emphasis on setting the highest possible motivation and goals, and for the depth of the scientific and musicological research that it is based on, has been endlessly productive, both in the case of Young himself, and those who’ve studied with or around him (Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, John Cale, Jon Hassell, Rhys Chatham, Arnold Dreyblatt, Michael Harrison, Henry Flynt, Catherine Christer Hennix, and at a secondary level, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen Three etc.) – precisely because it does not rely on happy accidents, but on a knowledge of the powers of sound.
In his notes to Young-protégé Catherine Christer Hennix’s newly issued just intonation drone masterpiece, The Electric Harpsichord, Henry Flynt says: “The thrust of modern technology was to transfer the human act to the machine, to eliminate the human in favor of the machine, to study phenomena contrived to be independent of how humans perceived them. In contrast, the culture of tuning which Young transmitted by example to his acolytes let conscious discernment of an external process define the phenomenon. The next step is to seek the laws of conscious discernment or recognition of the process. And the next step is to invent a system driven by improvisation monitored by conscious apperception of the process.” In other words: don’t just let the machines run. And don’t hide behind Cage’s culture of the accident, of chance. Become conscious of what music can be, dive deeper into that vast field of sonic relationships that, at least in the west, remains almost totally unexplored.
The drone, like drugs or eroticism, cannot be easily assimilated to one side of the divide by which modernism or the avant-garde has tried to separate itself from the world of tradition. Like the psychedelics, the drone, rising out of the very heart of the modern, and its world of machines, mathematics, chemistry and so on, beckons us neither forward nor backward, but sideways, into an open field of activity that is always in dialogue with “archaic” or traditional cultures. This is an open field of shared goals and a multiplicity of experimental techniques, rather than the assumed superiority of the musicologist or the naïve poaching of the sampler posse. How vast is this field? I recently asked Hennix what the ratio of the known to the unknown is, when it comes to exploring the musical worlds contained in different just intonation based tuning systems. She laughed and said “oh, it’s about one to infinity!”
Thanks to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Sri Karunamayee, Henry Flynt and Catherine Christer Hennix for their help in writing this article.
The 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.
Among 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.”