Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith in Bomb magazine

I have an in depth interview with conceptual poet and UbuWeb founder Kenneth Goldsmith in the latest issue of Bomb magazine. You can listen to audio from it and read an excerpt here.   Here’s the intro to the piece for those who are curious: “”Kenneth Goldsmith is a trickster for sure, not just because his work takes place on the crossroads between legal and illegal, between digital and real life, between word and image, but because he’s a man who wears a lot of hats, metaphorical and otherwise. He’s the founder of UbuWeb, the largest archive of avant-garde art on the Internet, and an incredibly rich and dense resource for anyone interested in the history of experimental writing, music, film, and visual arts. He was a radio DJ on WFMU for many years, producing a prank-heavy show of experimental horseplay called Unpopular Music. He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on what he calls “uncreative writing.” He’s a visual, sound, and text-based artist and poet, author of a number of remarkable books, including No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (1997), Day (2003), the radio-appropriation trilogy The Weather/Traffic/Sports (2005–08), and is currently working on a history of New York in the 20th century built around Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. His new book, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, sets out much of the thinking behind these projects and proposes a manifesto for writing in the 21st century, while the recent collection Against Expression, co-edited with poetics scholar Craig Dworkin, brings together key literary texts that enact what Dworkin and Goldsmith call conceptual writing—writing built around specific processes of experimentation (i.e., concepts) rather than the demand for self-expression.

Interviewing Goldsmith is a slightly unnerving affair, even for someone such as myself, who’s known him for many years. Goldsmith has brought many of the techniques of appropriation-based visual art to literature, and then multiplied the power of these techniques again through his provocative use of digital technologies and the Internet. The result is that anyone speaking to Goldsmith knows that anything said to him might be appropriated, transformed into a text of some kind, and made part of one of Goldsmith’s strange and beautiful textual mirrors. I met Goldsmith in the West 20s Manhattan loft he shares with his wife, visual artist Cheryl Donegan, and sons, Finnegan and Cassius. The loft’s walls are covered with books, CDs, and vinyl—relics of the predigital age. The main apartment window, which used to offer a view of the wonderful Chelsea Flea Market, where Goldsmith acquired many of his treasures, now looks onto a vast apartment building. We talked for an hour before lunch. My recording device died halfway through the interview. Goldsmith’s didn’t. A small detail, but important, especially today, because as William S. Burroughs said, and Goldsmith understands very well, there’s “nothing here but the recordings.””

Buddhism After Badiou Talk at Middlesex Philosophy Dept. March 1

I’ll be giving a talk in London at the Middlesex U. Philosophy Department on Tuesday, March 1.  Details here.  This is one of the most progressive philosophy departments around and it’s a real honor to speak there, even more so since the department is under threat of being shut down and the site of a major struggle between faculty/students/supporters worldwide and the administration. I’ll be discussing some of my post-IPOC ideas about Buddhism and what the meaning of the word practice is, within Buddhism, but also more broadly in contemporary life.  More specifically I’ll be reading the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou from a Buddhist perspective, which if you know Badiou’s post-Maoist, rigorously materialist philosophy at all, might sound like a highly improbable thing to do.  The work involves rethinking Buddhism (or at least my own relation to Buddhism) as much as rethinking Badiou.  I’ll save the details, which involve German Marxists Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, Tibetan modernist Gedun Choephel, Chairman Mao, Cantor’s set theory amongst others, for the talk.

Ice Fishing in Gimli

I recently interviewed Winnipeg based writer/artist/architect Rob Kovitz about his epic 8 volume 4500 page novel Ice Fishing in Gimli, for a chapbook published in conjunction with the exhibition of the book currently on show at The Department in Toronto, and curated by Michael Maranda of  the Art Gallery of York University.  The book is almost entirely appropriated from other people’s writings (some of the photos are by Kovitz) and Kovitz says that, amongst other things, he was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s similarly vast Arcades Project, which also consists largely of quotes taken from other people’s writings.

Kovitz’s book is a heroic Melvillean exercise, ice fishing instead of whale fishing, digital text archives instead of pen on paper, a similar sense of extensive intimacy with territories way off most people’s maps (although Guy Maddin and others have also made works focusing on Gimli, a town 75 km north of Winnipeg, originally populated by people of Icelandic descent).  I like the sense of Ice Fishing as an impossible book, far too long to actually read, but what’s strange is that Ice Fishing is a very compelling read, with a powerful narrative drive.  This produces a strong sense of pathos: the book seems to anticipate its own rejection or being ignored, even in the act of you exploring it.

I’ve been meaning to write an essay about the history of copying in Canada for a while, and Rob and I touched on this in conversation: Glenn Gould’s spliced sound recordings; John Oswald’s Plunderphonics; Christian Bök’s dictionary channelling Eunoia; Guy Maddin’s pastiche films; Gail Scott’s appropriated texts like My Paris and The Obituary; Nourbese Philip’s cut up slave narrative, Zong! Not to mention visual artists such as Michael Snow (the Walking Woman pieces for sure, but also the movie Wavelength which over forty five minutes focuses in on a photo of a lake or sea) or Shary Boyle’s perverse porcelains.  And McLuhan. And … there’s a lot of appropriation going on up here!  One might ask: why?

Uploading My Book to AAAAARG.ORG

I am uploading my new book onto the internet. Yes, I am.  The book is not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of commodification … OK, I’m copying again, from the introductory lines of Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Unpacking My Library”, which media theorist Julian Dibbell riffed on in his  dawn of the downloading age essay “Unpacking My Record Collection”.   Those two excellent essays were concerned with the figure of the collector.  But what concerns me here is, to use the title of another of Benjamin’s essays, “the author as producer”, and the act of donating a book, “my book”, to a library, if library is the right word for the place where my text is being deposited.

Walter Benjamin’s library card, Paris, 1940.

While I was finishing In Praise of Copying, I became interested in the circulation of texts.  I wondered whether it was hypocritical to write a book that celebrates copying, while still slapping a copyright notice to the front of the book.  There are easy ways out of this: I could say that what I’m doing is presenting a critique of contemporary society but that obviously I have to work pragmatically within existing economic conditions, even though I disapprove of them.  There’s some truth to that. In fact, the copyright notice to many academic books is in the name of the publisher, not the author.  When I talked to people at Harvard, they pointed out to me that in signing a book contract, I had already signed away most of the rights to the book, and that it was therefore more honest for the publisher to claim and look after the copyright.  I could have requested that I retain the copyright, as I did with my first HUP published book, but I thought there was something persuasive about their argument.  And that I don’t need to own the copyright in order to feel some sense of agency in relation to what I’d written.

But I still wanted to explicitly allow people to make copies of my book about copying.  I asked Harvard whether this was possible and they said yes.  As of October 1, 2010, the book has been available from Harvard’s website as a pdf, free to download, but with a creative commons license that restricts the uses of the copy.  I wrote the following text to accompany the web page:

“Given the topic and stance of In Praise of Copying, I wanted the text to participate openly in the circulation of copies that we see flourishing all around us. I approached Harvard to discuss options and they agreed to make the book available as a PDF online. The PDF is freely available to anyone who wants to download it, but it does come with a creative commons license that sets some intelligent restrictions on what you can do with it. Although generosity is a wonderful thing, this isn’t especially intended as a utopian gesture towards a world in which everything is free. It’s recognition of the way in which copies of texts circulate today, a circulation in which the physical object known as the book that is for sale in the marketplace has an important but hardly exclusive role. A PDF of a book is not an illegitimate copy of a legitimate original but participates in other kinds of circulation that have long flourished around the book-commodity: the library book; the photocopy or hand-written copy; the book browsed, borrowed or shared. We all know these modes of circulation exist, as they continue to do today with online text archives.

Perhaps these online archives just make visible and more “at hand” something that was happening invisibly, more distantly, but continuously before. At the same time, something new is going on. The physical book today is one copy, one iteration of a text among others. What that means for publishers, writers, readers and other interested parties is something that we are working out – on this webpage and elsewhere.” —Marcus Boon

I’ve been reading some of Douglas Rushkoff’s arguments for writers abandoning conventional publishing for a direct web based sales approach as well as the various arguments for and against eReaders, and Ted Striphas’ terrific book The Late Age of Print, which outlines some of the desperate strategies currently employed by authors and publishers.  I understand the need for both authors and publishers to have a functioning economic model today.  I’m a professor at a university and I don’t rely on income from books to make ends meet.  The right to work and get paid is often invoked as a justification for existing intellectual property regimes.  It’s a serious matter and I don’t have an easy solution to it.  It’s not only authors and artists who are wondering how they’re going to get paid.  Couldn’t you say that the car plant worker whose job is outsourced is also experiencing a crisis in the way that we relate to copies?  In this case the industrial age copies that so much of our economy has been built around.  I don’t think that economic arguments are the only important ones – there’s such a thing as a moral right, not just for authors, but for those who participate in the public domain, i.e. all of us.

For example: in the last couple of years, the two most important independent booksellers in Toronto, Pages and This Ain’t the Rosedale Library have both gone out of business. While the chainstores are still there, the newly published “alternative” book as physical object has almost ceased to exist for those living in downtown Toronto.  Such bookstores were more than places to make cash transactions for books, they were an important part of my education: as a former teenager/student/bohemian lowlife/grad student/freelance writer I browsed there, I read chapters, consulted indexes, wrote down citations.  They were places were books were curated and presented in a powerful way I had more or less unimpeded access to the book as object.  Probably if I’d tried to photograph pages from a book it wouldn’t have gone so well, but it never occurred to me to do that.  And if I really needed to copy more, I would have searched the libraries and then copied a chapter while at work. Or actually bought the book, if I had the money.

All of that activity has moved online.  I don’t think we should rely on Googlebooks making texts available online. We should do it ourselves, or through our publishers.  The pdf functions more or less the same way as the book sitting in the bookstore or the library, and I’m happy that my writing will be accessible to those who have a somewhat marginal relationship to book buying, as I myself have had at different points in my life.  Making pdfs of all of our work available online is an easy but powerful gesture towards an expanded public domain.  And it may even support the economic needs of writers and publishers: James Boyle believes so. So do I.

There are proposals in the US for a National Digital Library, and perhaps one could dream of a Borgesian global Digital Library where every text ever written was to be found.  Those proposals raise a number of interesting questions.  But while the negotiation of legal protocols that would allow such a library to come into existence are daunting enough to make the project seem like a utopia, something like this library has already come into being, in a haphazard, piratical way on the internet.

Which brings me to AAAAARG.ORG.  AAAAARG feels like a secret because a lot of the texts that are listed on the site (but stored elsewhere) are arguably in breach of copyright law. But how secret is anything that has a URL?  It’s already an open secret in the sense that scholars like Sedgwick and Taussig described it: something that everybody knows about but no one can talk about.  And what is that something? The public domain itself as the primary fact of our society or any society. Many grad students, artists and professors I talk to have heard of AAAAARG and browsed it. It’s an amazing, but controversial resource, since the site is a library of theoretical texts that encompasses most of the work of most of the key thinkers of the last hundred years … except when  their publishers have issued takedown notices to prevent copies of their texts appearing in the AAAAARG archive.  There have also been attempts to shut AAAAARG down completely, including at least one this year. But the site floats up A.AAAARG turning into AAAAARG or some other iteration.

I enjoy the curatorial aspect of AAAAARG and it’s become one of the first places I go to when I want a quick heads up on a topic, usually be looking through one of the many “issues” that link various texts in the archive.  Anyone can add a text to an issue.  I added IPOC to the Piracy, collaboration, Collage, objects, surplus, Aesthetics, copyleft cuture (sic) groups. Not that I think that’s an accurate summary of what goes on in my book, but it’s a useful set of links.    What happens next? I think that’s something we’re all waiting to find out.  “Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects”, said Benjamin as he finished unpacking his library.  A book collector dwells and lives inside the books that he owns, he continued.  Today, the question of how we can dwell in or with the objects that surrounds us has never been more pressing.  Books, as Benjamin knew very well, are just a tiny part of it …

Victorian Photocollage at the AGO

Lady Filmer, from the Filmer Album, mid-1860s

The Victorian photocollage show currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario adds a new chapter to the history of montage and collage. The show consists of pages from a series of albums produced by British society women in the mid-nineteenth century. The pages cut and paste heads from cartes de visite, society portrait photographs, onto animals, exotic scenes and domestic interiors, playfully juxtaposing and arranging connections between families.  The cartes de visite were the first mass produced commercially available photographs, enabling a relatively large group of people to have photographic images of Queen Victoria and the like, which they collected in albums.  Society women like Lady Filmer, who is pictured above at work with knife and glue at her pink table, remixed such photographs against watercolor backgrounds, for the amusement of guests. The albums functioned very much as social networking sites like Facebook do today — except that these albums are literally “books of faces”, discreetly revealed to a visitor one wants to impress, who might leave their own carte de visite on the table.

It’s still commonplace to think of montage and collage as primarily modernist or avant garde practices, even though they’re clearly part of advertising or subcultures like hip-hop.  I make the argument in In Praise of Copying that montage is an essential part of folk-cultures, where cut and paste techniques, appropriation of materials from the environment, collaboration and collective authorship are basic strategies of cultural production.  I was particularly interested in things like quilting or cooking recipes: semi-anonymous, stereotypically feminine arts that involve the use of pattern to transform pre-existing materials — in other words, to make highly charged copies.

The Victorian photocollage show certainly makes one question to what degree montage is really an inherently radical practice.  If the montage of Berlin dada aimed at the destruction of the images that support a particular arrangement of society, these images playfully participate in constructing such arrangements. Playing With Pictures, the book that accompanies the exhibition, does a good job of situating the photocollage albums within the Victorian cultural context of upper class amusements such as the tableau vivant.  The “surreal” juxtapositions of animals and humans found in the albums are already there in Grandville’s Parisian periodical illustrations of the 1840s — but without the use of photographic material.  Susan Buck-Morss traced this tradition back through the Baroque in her Dialectics of Seeing.

Grandville, “Seven of Wands, II”, 1847

For Buck-Morss, and for Walter Benjamin, such images were bourgeois fantasies of the commodified utopia of nineteenth century capitalism. That analysis works well for Victorian Photocollage too.  Looking through the albums, it’s striking how often human faces are grafted onto the bodies of animals (second nature as nature), objects such as bags, juggling balls, mirror and cups (commodification), and presented within highly staged domestic spaces that look like IKEA showrooms (’nuff said).  As much as the albums are aimed at the consolidation of aristocractic Victorian society, the encroaching future, certainly bourgeois, but with the masses not far behind, is there in the gaps and disjunctures within the image, whose meaning is waiting to be realized. The mass availability of cartes de visite of the Prince of Wales allowed for his appropriation into other social milieux … Monty Python dreamt up a hundred years in advance by upper class Victorian women.

Sam Shalabi: The Matrix Imploded

This was originally published in the July 2003 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I am come to tell you that I am Osama, risen from the dead like a phoenix,” says a matter of fact voice on Montreal-based psychedelic/improv musician Sam Shalabi’s extraordinary new release, Osama. The title word summons up the ghost of the hidden or deceased Al Qaeda leader in act of apparent provocation, but it also turns out to be Shalabi’s first name. Born in Libya, of Egyptian parents who emigrated to Canada’s remote Prince Edward Island when he was 5, Shalabi has found himself treated post 0911 as a suspected terrorist merely because of his name and nationality. Osama arrives as a potent musical response to rampant Arabophobia in the West, but also as a very personal, ambivalent and honest description of turbulent times.
Like that other remarkable response to 0911 and its aftermath, David Rees’ comic strip Get Your War On (, Osama achieves its effect not through dogma or slogan, but by describing what it actually feels like to be living in the West right now. While Get Your War On’s characters are depicted using a tiny repertoire of images of businessmen and women taken from corporate clip art, used over and over so that they appear literally trapped at their desks and their computers, while they discuss their fears and responses to the latest moves in the War on Terror, the cast of Osama’s voices emerge from a montage of musical styles, from balls to the wall guitar heroics, to queasy avant-classical strings, to repetitive driving electronic music and Shalabi’s own self-taught oud explorations. Through all of this are interwoven a variety of human voices, from the sound of someone crying, to a series of monologues and dialogues and songs, to what sounds like whole populations fleeing in panic. The guitars at times seem to be instruments of torture, the embodiment of American military-technological supremacy, while at other times, they express the wordless rage and sorrow of impotent populations shoved around by vast global forces.
Shalabi started work on Osama about a year and a half ago. “I wanted to do something literal and autobiographical, specific to what was going on at that time. But the whole process of doing something “political”, even about what was going on in my life with my background, began to bring up a lot of questions about why was I doing it, what effect did I think it would have and who was I doing it for. So then I stopped because I started to think that the idea of doing protest music about something so huge was self-deceptive and opportunistic. And when I started it again, all those feelings were included in the process of making it, in producing a sketch of what I felt was going on, something that was a bunch of voices, a survey of different feelings, impressions and perceptions of the situation. The whole thing started to get darker, more absurd – there was an element of futility to it. It seemed impossible to do something that was fairly literal, that would say anything that would have any value.”
Osama has gotten some hilariously savage reviews in the alternative press (sample: Stylus magazine says “Osama is not avant; it’s fucking garbage”!). It’s a genuinely disturbing record, precisely because it refuses to be situated in one category or another, whether crudely anti or pro war, experimental or pop. Shalabi speaks of his admiration for mid-1960s Frank Zappa productions like We’re Only In It for the Money, but the disk also recalls the tape splicing delights of The Faust Tapes, and the sheer rage of Caetano Veloso’s1972 “comeback” record Araça Azul, which also gleefully mixes concrete sounds and ethnic recordings with metal guitars and delicate psychedelic pop in an iconoclastic denunciation of conformity during the years of the Brazilian dictatorship. A veteran of the Montreal scene, Shalabi currently plays in 11 ensembles including the ethno-psychedelic improv unit The Shalabi Effect, whose excellent Alien8 CD The Trial of Saint Orange mixes fx laden oud and tabla with guitar and electronics. For Osama, Shalabi brought together a cast of thirty plus musicians from Montreal’s ever fertile avant-rock underground, including Efrim Menuck and Sophie Trudeau from Godspeed!, and Jessica Moss from A Silver Mount Zion.
Like Zappa, and other great pop tricksters, Shalabi plays with our desire for truth and confession on Osama. On “Mid East Tour Diary (2002)”, a musician reads from his tour diary, describing his travels from Casablanca, to Cairo, to Nablus, where he plays a gig after a suicide bomber has struck, ending in Jerusalem, where he has a nervous breakdown and wanders the street in a paranoid daze, before deciding he has to cancel the rest of the tour. The pathos of the story is strong, yet Shalabi reveals that the narrative, like others on the disk, is “a total fabrication. The intention behind that was to do something like a typical musician, fairly articulate, naïve yet politically aware, going on a tour to the middle east, and what his impressions and solutions were to the situation he was in. It’s ridiculous because his solution is to withdraw into himself, and that constitutes solving the mid east crisis! He just implodes on himself.” And so it goes with the other tracks. It’s a hall of mirrors. But in this moment of crude simplifications, three color warning systems and Orwellian doublespeak, Shalabi’s hall of mirrors turns out to be the one place where we can actually see ourselves.
On Osama, and 2002’s On Hashish, Shalabi pays homage to the work of German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose recently translated Arcades Project is a thousand page montage of quotes and theories about nineteenth century Paris that reveals the total fabric of a culture through a vast matrix of perspectives. “One great thing about Walter Benjamin is that he looked at his time and said that all the levels of the culture are intertwined – there’s no outside. Even if you think you’re outside of some of the preconceptions and prejudices of your time, if you’re positioning yourself against them, that doesn’t mean anything. You’re still in that culture and time, and part of the problem with the underground scene is that a lot of people don’t realize that they’re part of the infrastructure of commodification and capitalism. There’s a place in the status quo for dissent, and it’s easily recuperated. It’s another option or choice which people can go towards to feel good about themselves. The thing to look at is the actual medium and ask: does it actually do anything? Are you actually doing anything? And if that’s a question that’s too silly to ask – well, that’s where my sense of futility comes from. Is that all we have: to be able to say these things and comment from a position that’s fairly comfortable, where there’s really not much at stake?”
Osama is out now on Alien8.

The Eternal Drone

This essay was originally published in Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music in 2003. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”

Walter Benjamin

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.