On Appropriation

This essay was originally published in CR: The New Centennial Review in 2007. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“What if Appropriation – no one knows when or how – were to become an insight whose illuminating lightening flash enters into what is and what is taken to be? What if Appropriation, by its entry, were to remove everything that is in present being from its subjection to a commandeering order and bring it back into its own?”  Martin Heidegger, “The Way to Language” (133)

David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, first released in 1981, marks a key moment in the history of sound culture.  Recorded just prior to the advent of digital sampling, Byrne and Eno used edited and looped found, field and folk recordings, mostly of devotional singing and preaching from around the world, but also radio recordings, setting them to synthesized ethno-funk grooves. Spanning the dadaists use of found materials in their art, Duchamp’s famous urinal sculpture Fountain or his Mona Lisa appropriation L.H.O.O.Q, the modernist cutting and pasting practices of Eliot and Pound, the use of found sounds by Cage, the discovery of musique concrete by Pierre Schaffer, Burroughs and Gysin’s discovery of the cut-up as a technique for both writing and tape manipulation and the situationist practice of detournement, appropriation has a long and well known history in twentieth century western avant garde art, one which Byrne and Eno were keenly aware of when they made My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981.  Parallel to this tradition is an African diasporic tradition of appropriation, that we can trace from the mixing of breaks by hip-hop DJs like Grandmaster Flash in New York in the 1970s, through the use of collage and editing in Jamaican reggae (I am thinking for example of the cow sounds on Lee Perry’s “Cow Thief Skank”), back through various traditional practices, such as the “spiritualization of found and recycled objects placed in yards and upon the tomb as altar” which Robert Farris Thompson has described as being characteristic of the greater Afro-Atlantic World (181).  Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s 1953 novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, whose title Byrne and Eno also appropriated, apparently without having read the book, also has its place in this tradition. Written in English by a Christian Yoruba man, the book describes a series of acts of possession and dispossession that the narrator is subject to when he is driven out of his village by the wars of slavery.  The originality of Byrne and Eno’s Bush of Ghosts consists in bringing together these two traditions of appropriation in a new way, one that has profoundly influenced contemporary musical forms including hip-hop (Hank Shocklee, Public Enemy’s producer has cited it as a key moment in his musical education), drum and bass (Goldie sampled the record on Metalheadz’ genre-founding “Saint Angel”) and more.

What is appropriation?  The word has at least two contradictory but related meanings.  First of all, the sense in which it is used above, that of taking something and making or claiming it as one’s own, or using it as if it was one’s own.  Secondly, that which is proper to a situation or a person, that which is “appropriate”.  Appropriation, according to the first definition, often involves taking something which arguably belongs to someone else.  There is the sense of seizing, of making a claim on something that is claimed by someone else.  According to the second definition, it is that which one has a right to claim as one’s own, which is “properly” one’s own (we will set aside for now the question of where this right and claim come from). I began with a quote from Heidegger, from a lecture given in January 1959, 6 years after Tutuola’s book was published. Appropriation plays a highly significant role in Heidegger’s later work.  In his second, esoteric book, Contributions To Philosophy, written in 1936-8 with the subtitle title “Of Appropriation” and throughout the latter part of his career, Heidegger emphasized the significance of appropriation (an unusual translation of the word “Ereignis” but apparently one that Heidegger considered valid (1)), going so far as to claim in “The Way to Language” that it was “richer than any conceivable definition of Being” (129, footnote).

Heidegger uses the concept of appropriation in working through his critique of the Platonic doctrine of identity as essence.  Appropriation, in the sense of seizing something that belongs to others and making it one’s own, belongs to the tradition of metaphysics, since it posits that things have essences that belong to them, and at the same time that these things can be stolen from them.  The paradox of course is that if these things can be stolen, they can’t really be essences which would not be transferable.  For Heidegger, the process by which those things came to appear to have essences relied on an appropriation – in other words, that essence which appeared to belong to them was appropriated to them.  Thus, it is appropriation, rather than essence that is determinative of these things, although there is an ambiguity in the quote with which I began, since it is unclear whether, when things are removed from their subjection to the commandeering order (of metaphysics, science and so on), they will be “restored” to their own order, or to the order of appropriation itself.  What could “own” mean, if not an essence?  Indeed, where does “properness” come from if not essence?  In his late works, Heidegger spoke of “dwelling” as a kind of home that was properly one’s own, but nonetheless constructed, and of nearness or proximity as a measure of being, rather than essence.  Nevertheless, the question of how any sense of belonging can be constituted, phenomenologically or otherwise, remains unresolved in his work.

Tutuola’s remarkable text provides an interesting picture of what things would be or are like in a world constituted by acts and events of appropriation.  To list some of them, Tutuola is a Christian Yoruba man living in Lagos in the 1950s, writing in an English which has undergone considerable transformation.  His book begins with the narrator, a young boy, fleeing the wars of slavery (slavery being one of the most basic acts of appropriation imaginable) by heading out into the bush of ghosts.  In the bush of ghosts, he is passed from village to village, ghost to ghost, and transformed, possessed and used in a variety of ways.  The theme of eating and being eaten is crucial in the book – eating being of course another fundamental kind of appropriation and assimilation.  So is the theme of technology –in the variety of ways that the narrator becomes an object used instrumentally, as when “over a million “homeless-ghosts” … were listening to my cry as a radio.” (50) and the surprising presence of other techno-beings in the bush of ghosts – most famously “the television-handed ghostess”.  Where nothing has an essence, one is in a realm of constant transformation, appropriation, theft.  And yet the narrator is also able to insist on his proper form – proper perhaps as “that which is nearest to us”, to use a Heideggerian phrase, rather than that which IS us.  Tutuola’s text suggests the possibility of a comparative study of ways of modeling phenomena that we label appropriation.  Basic human ideas and phenomena such as embodiment, identity and property have of course been modeled in radically different ways by different cultures. These different models are highly relevant to contemporary discussions of copyright, intellectual property which are often built around uncritical framings of these terms.

In his 1957 text, Identity and Difference, Heidegger writes:

“The event of appropriation is that realm, vibrating within itself, through which man and Being reach each other in their nature, achieve their active nature by losing those qualities with which metaphysics has endowed them.  To think of appropriating as the event of appropriation means to contribute to this self-vibrating realm.” (37-8)

Without the endowments of metaphysics that appear to ground beings in essences, the universe appears as a flux of mutually co-constituting and interdependent appropriations, not dissimilar to that described by Tutuola.  “Properness” is given in the moment or event of the coming together of these vibrations.  But what does Heidegger refer to when he writes of this “self-vibrating realm”? Of course, it’s not clear.  The realms of light or sound?  The realm of pattern, tantra, interdependence, sunyatta of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism?  Following the rumor that Heidegger took LSD with Ernst Junger in the early 1950s, the realm of psychedelic experience?  Although Heidegger in fact pursued this thought in the direction of language, the vocabulary he uses is more specific to sound.  Thus in Identity and Difference, he writes that “in the event of appropriation vibrates the active nature of what speaks as language” (39, my italics). Avital Ronell has already investigated the importance of the “call” to Heidegger, and one might also examine “attunement” in Being and Time as a specifically sonic mode of apprehending being.  For now, let us observe that the sound world is indeed a “self-vibrating realm” and one in which appropriation is already quite familiar to most of us.

Music moves us, in doing so, it appropriates us.  It does this affectively – through “affection”.  What is called in our world today “appropriation” – the taking of something and making it ours, making it belong to us – operates in a fluid way in the realm of sound where the interaction of different sounds, which is called “harmony” or “rhythm” is manifestly a mutual appropriation.  The sound world requires us to think through the possibility of “appropriation” precisely in the Heideggerian sense of a “belonging together” which is not a unity.  The sound world “takes us out of ourselves” (ecstasis) and yet we experience that which takes us out of ourselves as part of ourselves, because we are emotionally affected, and we identify ourselves with our ability to “have” emotions. David Byrne struggles with this in his essay accompanying the reissue of Bush of Ghosts when he writes about an emotionally affective music that is composed through montage, that “tricks the emotions” because it is not a representation of an authentic performance.  But in the realm of sound, the affective power of sound is not the product of authentic expressions of particular subjectivities, despite the tradition of writing about music in the west that takes this point of view. This tradition would be the Platonic tradition that Heidegger is criticizing, in which identity is an essence that is revealed by an expression or representation.  A variety of non-western musical traditions around the world have developed rituals, practices and cultures built around this appropriative potential of sound.  Possession by deities and spirits is initiated through drums and percussion throughout the African-Atlantic diaspora, and the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia.  In Hindustani classical music, singers and musicians evoke the spirit of a raga by performing it, and a successful performance is measured by the appearance of the spirit, which is simultaneously a sound form, a picture, a color, a mood and a deity.  In all of these situations, no claim is made by the performers that the power of the music is the result of a particular personal subjectivity revealing itself.

As one of the first composers to break with the Platonic tradition in Western music, John Cage’s writings on sound offer us a way of thinking through sound and appropriation.  At first glance, there would appear to be no one more “against appropriation” than Cage. But it is precisely against the appropriations of sound made by the Western classical tradition that Cage writes.  In his stunning Juillard lecture (1952) he comments “I imagine that as contemporary music goes on changing in the way that I am changing it what will be done is to more and more completely liberate sounds from abstract ideas about them and more and more exactly to let them be physically, uniquely, themselves.  This means for me: knowing more and more not what I think a sound is, but what it actually is in all of its a-coustical details and then letting this sound exist, itself, changing in a changing sonorous environment.” (99-100) In other words, rather than appropriating sounds and forcing them to conform to an artificial set of ideas about what sound is, the composer sets up a situation where audience and composer can experience sound as being autonomous. “Silence surrounds many of the sounds so that they ex-ist in space unimpeded by one another and yet inter-penetrating one another” (100)  This would be the “self-vibrating realm” that I discussed earlier, where the interpenetration of sounds (and listeners) would constitute an open, unbounded mutual appropriation, where by taking a leap (participating in a performance of 4’ 33” for example), one “is appropriated” and enters into “the event of appropriation” and an encounter with “Being”.

There is some question whether, in working so hard to avoid an appropriation that posits sound as being composed of notated essences, Cage fully engages the autonomously appropriative qualities of sound.  “Chance procedures” are indeed a way of taking a leap into “the event of appropriation”, but is it the only or most a/effective way?  Is unstructured sound the only authentic way of experiencing Being sonically?  A whole diaspora of post-Cagean musical practices and strategies have evolved and been disseminated around the world that work in different ways with this problem.  The use of just intonation tuning systems by La Monte Young and others, based on the physics of sound suggests the possibility of a “true” metaphysics that emerges from a time-based tuning in to the universal structures modelled and constituted through natural harmonics.  Improvisation, as practiced by Derek Bailey and others, turns music making into an event whose meaning is immanent in the moment of collaborative or solo performance.  The use of chance procedures as the basis of collaborative improvisation by Cardew and Zorn, the use of error or found sound by Bryars or the glitch electronica of Oval and Kid 606 all arguably aim at triggering a Heideggerian event of appropriation, in and through sound.  A kind of secular mysticism emerges in both Heidegger’s work, and many of the musicians named above, one that is all the more powerful for its manifestation within an apparently non or a-cognitive zone.

If all musical experience involves and is constituted by appropriation, what do we make of music that involves what we might call the secondary, more literal appropriations of “other people’s sounds”?  This kind of appropriation involves either an imitation of a style or musical form (as with Doors cover bands or Elvis imitators, but also with genre or idiom based musics of all kinds), or the use of a technology of some kind to record sound and manipulate or represent it in some fashion.  With sound, there always exists the possibility of an imitation that appears identical to the original, as long as the source of the sound is not actively sought out.  This is the basis of the use of sound in hunting – the imitation of animal sounds by the voices of hunters.  Therefore, not all sonic appropriation is technological.  Although the technological appropriation of sound has been traced back to the use of bamboo slivers placed under temple doors which, when scraped across the floor produce a sound similar to a human voice (Davies), I will focus on the group of sound recording technologies developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, beginning in 1877 with Edison’s development of the tinfoil cylinder phonograph.  These technologies constituted a large leap in human ability to appropriate, imitate and manipulate sound.  Recording has a particular pathos in the world of sound because unlike visual images, text etc., sound is only present at the moment that it resonates in space, and is thus particularly time-bound.

The appropriations for which My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is known are of course technological, in that the record involves sounds which are copied and manipulated from other sources, using a variety of recording technologies.  Some tracks were recorded onto cassette from talk radio in New York and San Francisco (“America is Waiting”, “Mea Culpa”) or from Christian evangelist preachers (“Help Me Somebody”), others from a Folkways recording of a gospel choir from Georgia (“Moonlight in Glory”) and ethnographic recordings (details of Qu’ran?).  It is these appropriations that have been controversial.  Made before the advent of digital sampling, and the attendant licensing, copyright and intellectual property disputes that have come with our new abilities to appropriate and manipulate recordings of others, the clearance of samples that Byrne and Eno sought for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was apparently a novelty: “no one knew what the hell we were up to”. The disk has faced at least two challenges on the grounds of the inappropriate use of the samples. One for the Qu’ran track, which features recordings of Muslim preachers chanting from the Koran, which Eno and co. decided to leave off the recent reissue, after complaints from the Islamic Council of Great Britain (Enoweb). The other for the original version of “The Jezebel Spirit” which was entitled “Into the Spirit World” and featured a recording of Christian preacher Kathryn Kuhlman, but was blocked by her estate and then replaced by a recording of another preacher.

All technology, as Heidegger tells us, is a framing.  Within the framing, certain kinds of appropriation are possible, in that certain materials are taken, transformed and renamed.  Thus, the whole history of recorded sound constitutes a framing of sound and music, turning it into a kind of raw material that stands ready to be called forth and used by humans. It may be the case that the appropriation of human voices, as opposed to musical instruments, is particularly problematic, because voices are particularly unmediated sources of sound.  These voices have not only been copied, but also edited and manipulated, and they thus have the intense ambiguity around them that surround all montages.  Anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about the power of defacement as a way of negating and politicizing form (the montages of John Heartfield or Adbusters come to mind).  However, any sonic appropriation – meaning a sound taken and used outside of its “original” context – regardless of the intention behind the appropriation, might be considered a defacement if those who claim the ownership of the sounds object to the editing or recontextualization.  Montage is disrespectful of form.  What montage reveals is the inherent mutability of all forms.  As Taussig shows, the incendiary effects of montage reveals the politics of form, of what is appropriate, and the ways in which what is believed appropriate are enforced.  In other words, montage reveals the power structures that give to us the form of the appropriate and the inappropriate – and also the fragility, delicacy of particular forms.

A certain amount of guilt prevails around appropriation.  We would like to pay for our appropriations, and so we try to find someone to pay off.  Nor are such people usually hard to find.  And yet, if appropriation is ontologically inevitable, it is unclear that such payment is ever totally appropriate.  Perhaps our entire economic system serves to allow us to perform endlessly this ritual by which we seek to pay for what we think we have taken, or demand payment for what we feel has been taken from us.  One possible response to this situation is to give things away.  For example, the new edition of Bush of Ghosts comes with a website in which we can download samples of the original tracks of Bush of Ghosts for free.  The debt incurred by using other people’s work is paid for by freely giving away that which might otherwise be taken without permission.  Sometimes people have a right to control the uses to which their voice is put.  Sometimes they don’t.  Where does the sense of “our own” come from in music?  Heidegger speaks of the proper as a kind of law, but how do we come to know what is proper?  Is this a human rights issue?  Without a doubt, most of us would like to have some control over the uses that our words, our speech, our performances are put to.  And yet, much of the most vital music made in the last 25 years is based on a free circulation of sounds that is predicated on free access to recordings placed on the public record.

There is a power structure in evidence in all appropriation.  Certain voices, certain sounds are taken from their context, from their own names and placed in another context, an 8 track recording studio, another name, that of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Byrne and Eno.  Sometimes this is done with permission, sometimes not.  When done without getting permission, the links between the sonic appropriations of the avant garde and the long history of colonial appropriation become evident.  But the right to give permission can itself be seen as an appropriated right – and the practice of appropriation, as I have already shown, is a practice of many cultures around the world and throughout history.  In particular, folk cultures in the industrial age, as philosopher/musician Henry Flynt has observed, are often engaged in appropriating techniques from high or mass culture and “subordinating them” to their own purposes. Sometimes, the appropriation is mutual as with the collaboration of “Byrne” and “Eno”.  At other times, surely Byrne and Eno are themselves appropriated by the voices they have used. As Heidegger says in his writings on technology, the end of man’s placing nature within a technological enframing in which it is taken as a standing reserve is that the point is reached where man too must be taken as standing reserve, and technology is revealed as something other than man’s servant.  We see precisely this happening with music – indeed it is the reason why music holds such an enormously prestigious place in the world today.  Why?  Because we can see the way in which man is appropriated by technology through music, and we can experience a kind of ecstasis (Heidegger’s term) through the experience of this appropriation, which “calls” us too as we listen or dance.  The goofy video made for Talking Heads’ “Once In a Lifetime” from Remain In Light, released around the same time as Bush of Ghosts, features Byrne as a tweedy anthropologist, moving in a dishevelled but committed way to the rippling funk that surrounds him.

Some of Heidegger’s richest thinking about appropriation concerns a struggle between the different modes of appropriation found in contemporary society.  In particular, Heidegger is concerned with technology as a dominant mode of appropriation – and the quote with which I began posits a linguistic power as potentially being able to appropriate that which has been appropriated by technology.  In these terms, the technological appropriations that I have discussed on Bush of Ghosts are only one kind of appropriation.  The tension on many of the tracks on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is the tension between different modes of appropriation, different claims being made on the listener.  Most tracks use a highly repetitive funk sound, that asserts its effects corporeally, makes you want to dance etc.  Against this more or less pagan sound, with its links to the hedonistic dance cultures of the 1970s, these recordings of religious voices, trebley, lofi, affectively intense, work.  On “The Jezebel Spirit” the swirling gamelan funk that Byrne and Eno create appropriates in one direction, while the voice of the unidentified New York exorcist enacts the literal reappropriation of the mind of the woman possessed by “The Jezebel Spirit” in an other direction. The funk on “The Jezebel Spirit” intensifies into a swirling loop as the exorcism proceeds mimicking the struggling forces, and yet it does not resolve itself at the end of the track.  We are caught between different modes of appropriation – as perhaps we always are.

But these “other voices” call us into deeper engagement in and with the sound world, through the framing of technology.  I mean this as follows: sound, the sound of the human voice is a sacred force in most of the vocal samples Byrne and Eno use.  One could argue that these voices appear within the technological horizon, are framed by it, and by Byrne and Eno’s editing and direction.  Yet there’s another way in which it is the sound world, which has particular rules and powers, which appropriates technologies, editors and the like into it.  These appropriated voices actually stand in closest relation to that sound world and its powers, and maintain the most integrity in it.  Indeed they are propagated, radically extended by the forces of modernity and postmodernity which we know to be so crucial in the dissemination of African diasporic cultures in the twentieth century … and also perhaps more broadly in the dissemination of peasant or folk cultures worldwide.  The remarkable tension achieved on many of the tracks on Bush of Ghosts is the result of Byrne and Eno’s peculiar modulation of the different modes of appropriation that can manifest sonically.  At the beginning of this paper, Heidegger spoke of a moment where appropriation might come into its own.  Heidegger writes in a number of essays about the possibility that the appropriations of technology might themselves be appropriated in some way by a different kind of force.  Byrne and Eno’s Bush of Ghosts, emerging in New York at the same time as the radical mutations of the 12 inch discomix and Grandmaster Flash’s scratch mixes, revealed new powers of appropriation, which have become almost a dominant mode of making music in the age of Public Enemy, click and cut sound sampling and Moby’s Play with its blues and gospel archival appropriations.

Contemporary issues around copyright and intellectual property, whether related to downloading of digital music “copies” or the right of artists to sample the work of others and use it in their own work, issues which Byrne and Eno were among the first to confront with My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, result from a growing confusion as to the nature of the appropriate.  As the evidence of the fundamental character of appropriation, revealed through technologies or otherwise, accumulates, a crisis as to our relation to the appropriate and the appropriable becomes ever more apparent.  Although Heidegger recognised this crisis, even in his late writings it has the character of something unknown.  And Byrne and Eno didn’t know either.  But this “not knowing” is not merely a general statement of confusion – Heidegger spoke of the event of appropriation, and the status of the event is that it opens up into the not known.  Our experiences of sound are precisely an example of such an event of appropriation.  We do not know what it is that moves us in music, and we do not know from where it is that music speaks or sings to us.  That which appears as sound in the sound world no longer belongs to the one who sung or played or composed it.  It has been appropriated to it.  Byrne and Eno can hardly be said to have discovered this, but we can say that they discovered for themselves that the nature of the “not known” event in which various unrelated sounds encounter one another is not “merely” that of randomness.  Appropriation is precisely that which takes up the random, the aleatory, the unconnected and chaotic and does something with it, places it in pattern or resonance.  Because in this sense appropriation underlies our very ability to make meaning of ourselves and the world that we find ourselves in, we should pause before endorsing the arguments of lobbyists for aggressive enforcement of copyright law – as well as those who argue for eliimination of such laws.  Something joyful and yet highly disturbing is revealed in the appropriations of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Slowly, inexorably, we are drawing closer to it.


(1) I have followed the conclusions of Richard Polt (2005, 2006), regarding the translation of “Ereignis” and “das Ereignis” as “appropriation” and “event of appropriation” (2006, 10).  This is also the word used by Stambaugh, in consultation with Heidegger, in translations of Heidegger’s later works such as Of Time and Being and Identity and Difference.

Works Cited

Byrne, David and Brian Eno.  2006 (1981).  My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Nonesuch CD.
Cage, John.  1969.  “Juillard Lecture” in A Year From Monday.  Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
Davies, Hugh.  1996.  “A History of Sampling”. Organised Sound, vol. 1 (1), 3-11.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
“Enoweb, FAQ 2” on Enoweb, an unofficial web site devoted to Brian Eno’s music athttps://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/
Flynt, Henry.  2002 (1980).  “The Meaning of my Avant-Garde Hillbilly and Blues Music” atwww.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/meaning_of_my_music.htm.
Heidegger, Martin. 1969.  Identity and Difference. Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  New York: Harper & Row.
1972.  On Time and Being. Trans. Joan Stambaugh.  New York: Harper and Row.
1982.  “The Way to Language” in On The Way To Language.  Trans. Peter Hertz.  New York: Harper & Row.
1993.  “The Question Concerning Technology” in Basic Writings.  Trans. William Lovitt.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
1999.  Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Polt, Richard.  2005.  “Ereignis” in Hubert Dreyfus and Mark Wrathall, eds. A Companion to Heidegger. Oxford: Blackwell.
2006.  The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy.  Ithaca, Cornell University Press.
Ronell, Avital.  1989. The Telephone Book: Technology–Schizophrenia–Electric Speech.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Taussig, Michael.  1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative.  Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1996.  “Afterword” to Recycled, Reseen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap by Charlotte Cerny.  New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Tutuola, Amos.  1994 (1953). The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  New York: Grove.

Four Seismic Musical Events

This was originally published in the March 2007 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Ustad Hafizullah Khan, Hazrat Allaudin Sabri’s shrine, Dehra Dun, India, February 2001

The idea of a live performance not intended primarily for human ears is a powerful one – and many religious traditions value the idea of singing for God. In the Sufi temples of India and Pakistan, the main sound played in the courtyard is qawalli, ecstatic vocals backed by harmoniums and hand drums, popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also sang at all night sessions at Sufi shrines. Hazrat Allaudin Sabri was a fourteenth century Sufi master (founder of the Chishti-Sabri branch of Sufism) said to be so intense and austere that the only person who could stand near him was his musician, who sat with his back to him at some distance, so as not to be scorched by the master’s vibrations. 600 years later, Sabri’s shrine is still a very intense place, the shrine itself full of men praying, many of them in states of ecstasy. I visited the shrine with several masters of the Kirana gharana (Pandit Pran Nath’s gharana) to whom the place is sacred, including the late Ustad Hafizullah Khan, khalife of the gharana and a master sarangi player, and the remarkable singer Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan. It was mid-day, we sat in the courtyard, a crowd gathered, kids, old men, everything between. The singing began, not qawalli, but Hindustani raga music, and the crowd listened. Hafizullah’s son Samiullah began to sing and it pierced my heart, a beautiful pure tone. I looked around and saw that I wasn’t alone. The atmosphere was one of intoxication, tears, drunkenness, a world turned upside down but gently so. I saw a man do a backflip while pacing back and forth on the marble verandah to the temple, totally entranced. I felt like I’d smoked a pound of hash. “Music can do all this!” as one of my colleagues said to me.

Concerto for Voice and Machinery, Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget etc, the ICA, London, January 1984.
There are moments at a live performance, all too rare, when reality shudders, and our ability to stand aside as objective or passive observers collapses. As we are pulled into the vortex of the event, which Antonin Artaud gave the name of the theater of cruelty, there’s a surging of mythical forces. As the field of the possible opens up, things manifest as highly charged, overlapping fragments. Power moves through us. The Concerto for Voice Machinery held at the ICA, reviled but diligent patron of the avant garde, was such a moment.
There was a cement mixer on stage. And some power drills. Einsturzende Neubauten, Fad Gadget, various friends. Some microphones. I’m not sure what we were expecting. Some noise, probably, or, more idealistically, for some new buildings to collapse.
At some point glass was tossed into the amplified cement mixer, making a tremendous sound. Someone announced that there was a secret tunnel beneath the ICA leading to Buckingham Palace. Someone else, perhaps Blixa Bargeld, started drilling into the floor of the building (or was it the stage?). The sound was intoxicating, surging purple waves of noise. Dust and sparks flew. Property was being damaged. The management tried to turn the sound off. A tug of war developed between the audience and bouncers for control of the mobile power generator which was powering the cement mixer and drill. Gasoline was leaking everywhere. Someone from the ICA tried to reason with the audience, but after a brief debate, earnestly conceded that the audience was right.
Did the police come? I don’t remember. Did anyone find the secret tunnel and make it for a secret rendezvous with the Queen? I don’t know. Outside of that theater of cruelty and that mad moment of intensity, the pigeon shit in Trafalgar Square and long night time train ride back to south London awaited us, as though nothing whatsover had happened. But for a brief moment, Einsturzende Neubauten started to live up to their name.

Schooly D circa “Saturday Night”, Public Enemy circa “Rebel Without a Pause”, 1000 Boomboxes and Car Stereos, Streets of New York City, 1985-6.
Those visiting the yuppie playground that Manhattan has become today will find it hard to imagine the New York of the early 1980s, subway trains covered with spectacular graffiti, and the streets alive with the sound of hip-hop and funk blasted from beatboxes the size of refrigerators and a thousand car stereos. The city-wide avant art extravaganza pulled off by Dondi, Rammellzee and other graf heroes found it’s analog in a world of sonic experimentation that reached a peak of gorgeous weirdness in the mid-1980s in the early tracks of Philadelphia rapper Schooly D, and the Hank Shocklee/Eric Sadler productions of Public Enemy. Schooly D’s first records such as “P.S.K. (What Does it Mean?)” and “Saturday Night” remain some of the strangest, most dusted hip-hop tracks ever made. Somehow the dull, superheavy drum machine rhythms that hold these tracks together already contain in them the distorted echo of boombox bass and drums echoing through the canyons of projects, a nihilistic ghost sound underscored by Schooly D’s mumbled, just about incomprehensible lyrics, full of menace and mysterious doped up thrills, ready to clear any pavement. It sounded even better when heard on the radio in the street, with strange audible delays resulting when the track was simultaneously broadcast on stereos one two or ten blocks away. Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” is probably as close as we’ll ever get to having free jazz pumped at deafening volume into every public space in a city. The screeching siren like sax loop that sounded so fearsome blasting from a car rumbling across the potholes of Flatbush Avenue, bound for do or die Bed Stuy bound, actually comes “The Grunt” by the JBs. The sound ruled the streets and everybody knew it – Chuck D’s later claim that rap was a “black CNN” seems like a poor consolation prize by comparison.

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela – New York City, The Dream House, Fall 1993 to present.
Even as other minimalists are feted globally and reissue programs make available more and more amazing archival tapes and performances, it remains next to impossible to hear recordings of the work of minimalist founder La Monte Young. A strange paradox then that all you need to do to hear Young’s work is walk up the stairs at 275 Church Street in Tribeca New York, between 2 and midnight on a Thursday or Saturday, to become fully immersed in a sound and light environment by Young and his partner, visual artist Marian Zazeela. The full title of Young’s static drone tone piece is itself too long to print here, but, to quote Young’s description, it’s “a periodic composite sound waveform environment created from sine wave components generated digitally in real time on a custom-designed Rayna interval synthesizer.” Young and Zazeela first developed the concept of the Dream House in the early 1960s as semi-permanent sound and light environments where Zazeela’s calligraphic light sculptures cast luminous shadows while Young’s drones manifest and gesture toward a world of eternal sound. The atmosphere is somewhere between the Rothko Chapel and an Indian raga house concert. No performers, just speaker stacks, a carpeted floor and pillows, magenta lights. You can move and experience the sonic grid created by the tones used in the piece, or lay still and explore the way that “tuning is a function of time” as Young says. Young says that it’s unlikely that anyone has ever experienced the feelings created by the complex cluster of just intonation tones that compose this sound environment. My own experiences in the room have not been ecstatic, in fact I find it difficult to point to any particular affective power in the sound. Yet there’s a strange magnetism to that peanut-butter thick wall of sound in that room that keeps me coming back, “eternal sound” that waits patiently for us to change and recognize it for what it is.


This was originally published in the June 2006 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

The Buddha Machine is a plastic transistor radio sized object with a built in speaker that allows the listener to switch between 9 infinitely repeating sound loops, each ambient, minimal and melodic and all under 40 seconds. Made by FM3 (“FM San” in Mandarin), the Beijing based duo of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian, it has become one of the more unlikely successes to emerge from the global improv/electronic underground. Originally made in an edition of 500, half of which were to be used in art installations and performances, Virant and Zhang Jian have sold over 15,000 of the machines, and have been lauded by everyone from Spin to Entertainment Weekly. In a remarkable act of generic mismatching/shoe-horning, the New York Times listed the machine as one of the best boxed sets of 2005. A parade of hipster cognoscenti, from Brian Eno to the Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop have bought multiples of the machine and sung its praises, and in November, Staubgold will release a compilation of Buddha Machine remixes called Jukebox Buddha including contributions by Tortoise, Sun O))), Aki Onda, Adrian Sherwood, Blixa Bargeld and others.
Virant and Zhang Jian began FM3 in Beijing in 1999, at a time when there was no electronic music scene to speak of in the city. Virant, who grew up in Nebraska during the hardcore punk era of the early 1980s, had been living in various East Asian cities since the late 1980s, learning traditional instruments, while experimenting with minimalist loop based methods of computer music composition. Jhang Zian, who grew up in Chengdu in Szechuan province, studied piano in music school there, but dropped out to become a travelling musician. He moved to Beijing in 1995, the same year that Virant did, and became keyboard player of choice for the city’s underground rock acts like Confucius Says. In recent years, he has made his living creating soundtracks for theater, film and TV in Beijing.
FM3 began with the idea of musical performance built around a computer. The group started out making acid house-like tracks with a guitarist, but when the group became a duo, began working with folk music samples. At first the duo hired local musicians to record samples for them. But according to Virant, “we were never interested in making Chinese electronic folk music. Around 2002, we realized that what we wanted these people to play, we could do ourselves. What we were looking for were the weird things, the accidents, the pauses in between their really eloquent melodies. So we borrowed these instruments and then immediately it became much easier to make our music. At that time we performed live with prepared Chinese instruments or invented or modified ones, along with two laptops playing drones.”
This period is captured well on Ambience Sinica, a bootleg of a 2002 performance, and the more recent Mort aux Vaches disk released by Staalplaat in 2005. In fact, most of the sound loops that appear on the Buddha Machine are made from samples of traditional Chinese instruments including the gu zheng (Chinese koto), ma tou qin (Mongolian “horse head” fiddle) and sheng (mouth organ) used as loops in live performances from this period. Outside of performance, the duo split the work up, with Zhang Jian contributing an ever growing array of field recordings, and Virant cutting up and editing them.
As an outgrowth of their interest in transforming field recordings, the duo have made two contributions to Sun City Girls’ ethnomusicological label Sublime Frequencies, the excellent Streets of Lhasa, consisting of recordings of folk music and street sounds in the Tibetan capital, and Radio Pyongyang, a bizarre and fascinating edit of North Korean “commie funk” and other propaganda pop, taped from shortwave radio by Virant in Hong Kong and Beijing. Zhang Jian does not speak English, but in what sounds like more than fair Mandarin, Virant conveys my questions to him and I get brief, rather modest replies. I ask him how he relates to Sublime Frequencies aesthetic of weirdness and appropriation and he replies: “the Tibet things you can’t say are weird – actually it’s quite beautiful. Weirdness is an attraction of course, but when I start editing at home, I go for the beautiful parts, not just weirdness.”
Soon to come on Sublime Frequencies are recent recordings made by Zhang in Bangladesh, a second volume of North Korean sounds (as a Chinese citizen, Zhang can enter the country freely) and a compilation of recordings of minority folk musics from rural China, originally recorded and released by Huan Qing, an old friend of Zhang’s from Szechuan in a hand lettered and packaged 8 CD set in China.
Recently the group has been asked to contribute a sound environment for one of the parks at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. When I ask Virant whether he feels that FM3 are in danger of becoming poster-boys for globalization, Virant laughs and deadpans “Unfortunately we have not been exploited as a model for globalization!” In fact the group remains virtually unknown in China, outside of the small but rapidly expanding electronic music scene. “If you’re a really famous person like a theater actor you get invited to Germany to give a performance of traditional Chinese culture, you stay for a week and then you go back home. It’s a cultural exchange understanding of the world. Zhang Jian said recently that he’s not making more money now than he was say when we played the Louvre. If a classical musician like Tan Dun played the Louvre he’s famous and it’s a big deal in China. We played three shows at the Louvre to 500 people and it’s not in the media, nobody here knows about it – because people don’t understand what we’re doing.”
Alternative culture is emerging slowly in Beijing, and FM3 does play underground rock venues like Nameless Highland and Get Lucky, as well as “the current home of the avant garde”, a Tuesday night show called Waterland Kwanyin at a bar called Dos Kolegas, curated by Yan Jun (who also runs Kwan Yin records). There are magazines like Tong Su Ge Qu (“Pop Song Weekly”) devoted to underground rock, but FM3 is outside their radar. “With our current Buddha Boxing show, Zhang and I sit at a table and play Buddha Machines as if it were a card game. And the concept of it people don’t get – they don’t consider it a performance, so very quickly it’s not something they write about, and they ignore it.” Nevertheless, he insists that FM3 is a Beijing group, and that the Chinese and American origins of the duo are irrelevant, compared to their own particular musical tastes and ways of working. There is also a rapidly expanding noise/electronica scene in Beijing fuelled by almost universal access to computers and bootleg software. “You essentially have a nation of kids with access to free instruments and that instrument happens to be a laptop,” says Virant. In the wake of this access, a million Merzbows are blooming.
How to explain the success of the Buddha Machine? Setting aside the unquestionable beauty of the loops, there is something about the conjunction of these very abstract, brief, melodic, infinitely repeatable fragments with a Chinese factory-manufactured plastic object that really speaks to the moment that we find ourselves in. The Buddha Machine is like globalization in a box, and embodies many of its contradictions. Marx said that commodity fetishism turned a table on its head and made it dance around. Now FM3 have produced a fetish object that plays its own music to dance to – an industrial era manufactured object with an information age sound coming out of it. All the more ironic, since the original Buddha Machine, which looped Buddhist mantras and chants, related a pre-modern sound, that of devotional singing, to an industrial era object, arguably transforming it in the process into “information”. FM3’s Buddha Machine (neither of the group are Buddhists), is essentially an appropriation of the original design (sold in China as “Chang Fo Ji”), with the group’s own musical loops replacing the mantras. And their machine is produced at a Buddhist factory on the SW Chinese coast, whose primary business is making the original chanting machines for export to Buddhist temples and believers throughout the world.
Through their experiences working with the factory, Virant and Zhang Jian have become unlikely participants in the remarkable explosion of industrial activity that is happening in China today. “Every time we go to the factory we’re inspired because that area of China is where huge amounts of global products are made,” observes Virant. “You drive down the street and you see factories making this and that and we stop at every one. That’s all we really do now is weird factory tours throughout China looking for ideas! It’s inspiring being in this place that most people regard as a huge export base, making toys for the global economy — but which we see as a fertile ground for ideas.”
“Recently we were talking about making a new FM3 product,” Virant continues, “And Zhang said “OK, we’ve got to go to this city to do it,” and when we get there it’s a huge marketplace for bizarre things like keychains with LED lights. One market there is the world’s largest market for sunglasses and a high percentage of all the world’s sunglasses are made there. There are huge airline hangars where the producers display their wares – you go there and say “OK, I want 100 million of these,” — they’re not retail places. The real problem we had with the Buddha Machine is that we don’t look or talk like serious businessmen and we’re not going to buy a hundred million of anything so people won’t deal with us, because they don’t want to waste their time talking to weird musicians from Beijing. If Jeff Koons and others who deal with huge art projects started visiting these cities, eventually all global art projects would be exported from China! An installation person would just say “OK, I want this and this and this” and get it done at these factories and have them ship it over to whatever gallery he’s exhibiting in.”
FM3 have become garageland commodity producers, involved in a strange kind of DIY mass production – much like the Chinese factory owners whose initiation into the industrial capitalist marketplace dates to around the same time as the post-punk DIY ethos that spawned Virant’s interest in music. The Buddha Machines, with their tinny speakers and cheap, bright, plastic vibe are disposable, fragile, and peculiarly intimate – just like a lot of the “trashy” objects made in these factories and sold in shopping malls around the world. FM3 celebrate this aesthetic. “The first generation models were designed so you had to hold it really close to your ear to hear it properly,” enthuses Virant. “We like the intimacy of it – you have to get so close to this piece of plastic and then out of it comes this really evocative piece of music. Zhang and I have always been about taking cheap equipment to any place we can play. On the one hand we’re quite lazy and always looking for the easy way out, and on the other, we’re very devoted to this simple way of performing. With the Buddha Machine, the design of the boxes, the printing, we got it all done at the last minute. Even the speaker and the lo-fi 6-bit chip – we really like that. It gives you the idea that anyone could have done it and should have 20 years ago.”
“We were joking that if Carston Nikolai had made the Buddha Machine it would be this beautiful, brilliantly designed, hand crafted, silver 24-bit stereo amazing thing,” concludes Virant. “We play very quiet hypnotic music and the Buddha Machine is inoffensive, unassuming, made of cheap plastic. Almost like a Tamagotchi that plays music. That’s the kind of thing we’re attracted to. You have to see beyond the crass commercialization of all this stuff – and because Zhang and I are not living in a Xmas dominated economy we can. In the West maybe you see a Furby doll and it’s annoying because whatever Xmas ago Furby was huge, but what we see is an amazing speech recording device which we can then mold into any shape we want.”

Global Ear: Toronto

This was originally published in the January 2006 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Strange lads”, says performer Aimée Dawn Robinson, looking towards the makeshift stage that fills a part of the front room at Tranzac, an Australia and New Zealand social club that is the current center of experimental and improvised music in Toronto, in particular for the ensembles associated with excellent local label Rat-Drifting. On stage are The Reveries: Ryan Driver kneels on the floor with a mike placed in his mouth, strumming a quasi-ruler with a very elastic bass sound; Doug Tielli plays guitar and has a nose flute strapped to his face, through which he makes muffled sounds; Eric Chenaux, also strumming guitar, sings through a harmonica that is shoved up into his face. The group lurch through a set of standards including Jobim’s “Useless Journey” and “The Nearness of You”, filled with beautiful harmonics and stuttering guitar sounds that sound like Derek Bailey and the Hi-Los, bound, gagged and dosed with sedatives, then thrown into the boot of an old Cadillac, from which they continue to play, presumably for their lives. The room is almost empty, as it is for most Rat Drifting shows, and the Bluegrass band in the back room sounds louder through the walls than the guys right in front of us. A Friday night crowd of drunks staggers by the front window, peering through the glass and making faces at what they see. Strange.
Toronto’s experimental music scene has always had a hermit-like status in its hometown. Pianist and radio-work composer Glenn Gould refused to talk to people in person towards the end of his life. CCMC, the collective that has included Michael Snow, John Oswald and many other key Toronto improvisors, were famous for weekly shows to a mostly empty room at their performance space, The Music Gallery. More recent experimenters like Sarah Peebles and Nilan Perrera also remain virtually unknown to the city as a whole. Nobody seems too bothered by this. Rat-Drifting co-founder Martin Arnold compares the scene in Toronto to medieval monasteries which “were fierce places in terms of saving information that had come down to them. There’s still that abbey ideal here that this stuff is going on some place and you can join it if you want but if you don’t, it’s OK, because it’s going to be there anyway. It’s a place where you can remove yourself from given strains of cultural production and consumption.”
Rat-Drifting began when Arnold, an Edmonton-born composer and folk music fiend, traveled up to York University (where James Tenney also taught, and where I do now) to assist former CCMC member and improvisation guru Casey Sokol in a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. During work on the piece, Arnold met a number of Sokol’s younger students, including Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli, who all started playing downtown. Through this network, Arnold also met Eric Chenaux, former bassist of Canadian indie pop band Crash Vegas, as well as playing with his own post rock outfit Phleg Camp, and together, inspired by the efforts of Constellation and Alien8 in Montréal amongst others, they began Rat-Drifting in 2002.
Since that time, Rat-Drifting has gradually evolved into a whole ecosystem of cross-linked ensembles, most of which have produced highly impressive CDs. There’s the Reveries whispery distorted standards on Blasé Kisses, the Draperies’ synth and guitar improv on l’histoire du chapeau, Arnold’s pet project the Marmots’ Scratch Orchestra-like psychedelic jug band on Treacle Wall. And then there’s The Silt, whose two CDs, Red Whistle and Earlier Ways to Wander are full of glorious unlikely rock songs that emerge almost at random out of the conjunction of the three improvisors, Tielli, Driver and Marcus Quin, many of them sounding like Neil Young (another Ontario son) played at 16 r.p.m. Soon to come are the wobbling Beefheart-like big band Saint Dirt Elementary School, The Ryan Driver Quartet, featuring Driver’s gorgeous Chet Baker signaling through the flames vocals, and a remarkable half hour reworking of the traditional “Tam Lin” by Arnold for the Draperies and Toronto new music ensemble Array Music. It all sounds like an imaginary urban folk music – created for a place that has few obvious folk traditions other than native cultures, or the tradition of buying records made in other places.
Chenaux speaks of the label’s enthusiasm for improvising around song. “The song is older than anything. People like songs wholeheartedly here. It’s a great form for fucking with – and jazz standards allow so much.” “Those songs have so many valencies,” agrees Arnold. “They give you all the lushness and kitsch you want, but they have a history of being improvised on in the most serious way, and a lot of material to mess around with harmonically and melodically. The farther it gets from jazz, the more I like it.” Rat Drifting’s most recent success in this song-warping vein is Flocklight by Josh Thorpe, which consists of transcriptions of sections of songs by Tom Waits and The Shaggs, time-stretched so that they’re eight times longer than the originals, which form the basis for a series of remarkable ten minute plus pieces performed by Chenaux, Thorpe and others on a variety of string instruments. The result sounds like country’n’gagaku – very slow spiralling melodies that go round and round.
In describing their music the Rat-Drifters favor words like “slackness”, “laziness”, and “languor”. Chenaux speaks of his love for Cardew, Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars’ amazing 1,2, 1,2,3,4, which he’s performed with the Draperies, a composition in which a group of improvisors all play along with tapes heard through headphones that slowly go out of synch, creating a strange hallucinatory drift between the different performers. Which is sort of how Canada, a place terminally drifting away from itself, feels too.
“If you live in New York or Berlin or London,” says Arnold, “I don’t think you can even imagine the Reveries. Chicago and Louisville have histories of music that’s unbelievably raw and slow, but it’s exemplarily slow. It’s not just slow, it’s “Will Oldham slow.” And I like Will Oldham, but it’s very hard for an American not to be exemplary. So even if they’re doing washed out psychedelic music, it’s got to be the most washed out psychedelic music, and I think you hear them entrepreneurially placing their imagination.”
The Reveries’ sound, built around guitars and distorted vocal sounds, strips away most of the obvious signs of a recognizable song, leaving a hazy harmonic fog that sounds at once nostalgic and psychedelic, a distorted, drugged out, improvised memory. As improvisation, each piece retains a lot of the affective powers of song without retaining the shape or form. Arnold says he’s fascinated by “music that isn’t meant to be listened to – people practicing; lounge jazz at the end of the night when no one’s there; people whistling or humming to themselves; Elizabethan consort music, the stuff that was written for amateurs.” “Hopefully it doesn’t come across as theater,” says Chenaux. “I like the things that happen when you’re concentrating on something else, if you’re gardening or writing and you’re humming or whistling, the way that you make a melody happen when you’re not playing close scrutiny to it.”

Philip Corner, Gamelan Son of Lion and “Gamelan in the New World”

These liner notes were originally published in the 2004 Locust Music CD re-issue of The Complete Gamelan in the New World. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

If you picked this cd up because of the title “Gamelan in the New World” with its suggestion of folkloric and ethnomusicological authenticity, expecting traditional Javanese or Balinese sounds, you will probably be in for a surprise when you encounter the joyous clattering of fluxus composer Philip Corner’s “Gamelan P.C” or Elena Cary’s “DNA”, in which the structural relationships between the four bases that compose the DNA strand are explored by being transposed to the gamelan. Although the gamelan had been an inspiration to generations of American composers, from Cowell, through Cage to Reich (and before them of course, back in the Old World, there was Debussy), the freedom with which these 1970s heads, high on the wondrous metallic resonances that the traditional Indonesian instruments make available, is eye and ear opening stuff. One of those chance encounters that irrevocably create a “New World” in the split-second before all the opposing forces of academe, orthodoxy and political correctness has the opportunity to stop it from happening. In 1972, ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary took a position in the music program at Livingston College, part of Rutgers University in New Jersey, whose faculty then included Philip Corner and electronics composer Daniel Goode. In 1974, at a summer program for the study of Asian culture, she met West Coast composer Lou Harrison, who, after extensive study in Indonesia, produced a number of works mixing gamelan with Western concert instruments. “Lou was very encouraging for us to produce works for the gamelan”, Benary recalls. “We used his own gamelan which was home made. Four or five of us who played on those instruments went on and found other Gamelans, one of whom was Dan Schmitt, with his Berkeley Gamelan, another one was called Gamelan Pacifica. They wrote and performed their own compositions.” Upon her return to the East Coast, Benary decided to build a Javanese gamelan, which beginners in the program could use as part of a study group, to gain hands-on experience in ethnic music. She built the gamelan, using directions written out by fellow former Wesleyan student Dennis Murphy, buying an 8 by 4 sheet of steel, and having it cut into strips for the keyboards, and building resonators out of discarded pet food and grapefruit juice cans. The Asian Music Performing Group at Livingston started using it, and Corner sat in with them. In 1975, when Benary was pregnant, the group joined and merged with Corner’s New Music Performing Group (her “Sleeping Braid” is “an accompaniment for Lyra Samara Silverstein, then six months old”). Benary had initially been against composing contemporary music for the gamelan, feeling that traditional instruments should be used for traditional music. “I just hadn’t heard anyone do it in a persuasive way,” she says. “With Phil, I didn’t think he was doing a disservice to traditional music, because what he was doing had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music. I know some people, like Steve Reich, were bothered though.” So the group began performing contemporary pieces written by various group members, and gave concerts at the school, at Princeton, and at lofts in New York. The name of the group, Gamelan Son of Lion, comes from translating Benary’s surname – which means Son of Lion in Hebrew. In 1976 or 1977 Benary was denied tenure at Livingston, and the gamelan was moved to Corner’s New York loft. Corner continued composing for gamelan until he moved to Italy in 1992, when the gamelan was moved to Goode’s loft – where Gamelan Son of Lion still rehearses and performs, incorporating wayang kulit shadow puppet shows to the music. While Harrison, and other American predecessors, such as Colin McPhee, who’d lived in Bali and written compositions for the gamelan, were careful to preserve relatively traditional structures in their work, Corner and colleagues approached the gamelan from a Cagean perspective, as a set of sound producing objects whose nature was to be explored, free of any pre-existing determining forms or structures. And yet, in the course of his encounter with the gamelan, Corner found his own composition methods changing rapidly: “I had been working for years with resonant metals and gongs, cymbals, meditative things,” he recalled recently. “There’s even a piece for audience participation called “Metal Meditations” that I did. So I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom. My first impulse was to take one of those pieces and transcribe it to gamelan. I immediately realized that was totally absurd. The nature of the gamelan is like having a keyboard with a scale of notes, and which note do I pick for repetitive cluster like sounds? On what basis do I limit it to some of the choices of the gamelan and end up with something that would actually sound better? So I decided that to go further I would have to accept what the gamelan gave which was essentially the scalar pattern.” Corner’s exploration of the gamelan’s pattern-creating abilities brought with it a reconciliation with a former enemy – numbers. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach, and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which the numbers always seemed to inhibit. But, in the fifties, there were also pieces where I explored pulses, or pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. But I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation.” Curiously, as Corner himself has noted, in using mathematical structures to organize the gamelan’s pattern making abilities, he ended up reproducing some of the structural underpinnings of Indonesian gamelan music. While much process-based composition can look and sound as dry and cold as those early personal computer program instructions that were circulating in the late 1970s, here was a metal-based musical form that thrived on numbers and processes without ever sounding machine-like (even when, on Dika Newlin’s “Machine Shop”, the piece is “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper-punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, N.J.). Metal has its own magic, and the gamelan instruments a life of their own, which emerges out of the resonant properties of metal, and the individual pieces of metal being tuned together as an inter-connected set. Corner explains: “The reality is the group, the instruments: the people come and go, the instruments stay the same, they’re matched and they go together. So you have the sense of joining something which already exists as a metaphysical phenomenon. Then, the physical aspect of it, sitting on the floor, taking your place before the instrument in an almost necessarily homageful posture. Relating to everyone in the way that the instruments are set up. Even when, as some people did, they did pieces from music with a music stand, it still had that feeling of being in it together, playing together, listening to each other and contributing to a whole.” In the accompanying sleevenotes, Corner and co. display a determined refusal to abandon their search for their own (“American”) relationships to these instruments. Although he has since had his works performed in Java and Bali, collaborated with Javanese masters, and invited Javanese groups to play in the U.S., Corner only visited Indonesia for the first time in 1986 (he also studied with Lou Harrison in 1982). While much of the West Coast based gamelan music affiliates itself with the idea of a pan-Pacific culture which it then becomes a legitimate part of, the more geographically distant Gamelan Son of Lion is defiantly rooted in the Cagean experimental tradition of the New York avant garde, and its search for the New and the Marvelous. In an interview made just before Corner’s first trip to Indonesia, he observed: “You can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.” The question as to Who We Are, or for that matter, what kind of a “New World” this is, remains open. As Benary says, many of the battles fought in the 1970s have been won, and the encounter of contemporary and traditional ethnic musics is an accepted part of the musical landscape, in the U.S. and Europe. Still, these CDs bear testimony to the possibility of a more radical encounter between traditional music, with all it’s accumulation of richness and detail, and the avant-garde’s raw apprehension of the sound universe in its totality. In Benary’s words: “Outside me musics are in categories, A flux of contradictions. But the flux which is my life is one thing Within me categories fade. The synthesis within is creation From here music is taken To return to the flux From which its pieces come.”

Philip Corner: A Long Life, Endless as the Sky

This was originally published in the June 2004 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I have a very hard time believing in the past,” says Philip Corner, speaking from his home in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he has lived since 1992. “In some way it’s just not real to me. I’ve always had a sense of things being outside of time. It doesn’t matter historically when something was written. I’ve even indicated in some things where I’ve come very close to a universal principle, of putting in the score that this can be done again under a different title, under a different composer’s name.”
Chronicling the life of the often mentioned but undercelebrated 71 year old American composer, best known for his connections to Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater, presents an interesting challenge. Thanks to a recent programme of reissues by Italian label Alga Marghen and the rediscovery of Corner’s remarkable 1970s and 80s work with Gamelan Son Of Lion, recently reissued by Locust, we have a window into Corner’s extraordinarily diverse activities. But what if, as Corner suggests above, a life in sound consisted precisely in stepping outside of biography or documentation? How would such a life be acknowledged or remembered by anyone who has not directly encountered the musician or composer in question? And in Corner’s case, how can one talk about someone who, by taking to a limit some of John Cage’s ideas of freeing music from the legacy of the composer, the notational score, and so on, risked disappearing entirely into sound, without a trace of his activities?
“I never understood why Cage didn’t go any further,” Corner declares. “He opened up something and then he stopped. Since Cage was so concerned with getting rid of what he called the Western claptrap, to stop at the point he did and attack improvisation, which is spontaneity and vision and being in the moment and research and search – by the end of his life, he was negating the basis of his whole aesthetic.”
By contrast Corner has continued to develop Cage’s legacy for the last 40 years, exploring the world of sound from a broad range of positions and perspectives, even for a tradition that prides itself on pulling the rug out from under its own feet. Corner has clearly come to feel at home in the groundless multiplicity that is the sound world. “It used to be that outside of music you have noise, or outside of structure you have chaos and that’s out,” he explains. “I don’t have any sense of that. There are people who represent extreme positions. La Monte Young’s early stuff is really hyperminimal compared with Cage, who was hypermaximal, and together they form an axis. But then at right angles to that you might have free jazz on one side and some kind of ethnic music on the other. And these form a definition of the limits of what essentially is a circle. I think it’s an infinite circle with these kinds of extreme stylistic manifestations at certain points along the edge. I feel that I’ve been working from the edge in towards the centre, which is where you have music, art, structure, tunes, dances – things that are relatively rational or coherent. I’ve also done some things that are working in that cultural centre where you have…” he pauses, deadpanning, “real notes, real tunes, real music.”
Corner’s work has encompassed tape music, piano improvisations involving just about every part of the piano and indeterminate numbers of performers; sound meditations and walks, Alpine horn pieces; a series of interactions with rock ’n’ roll and jazz entitled Popular Entertainments; many compositions for gamelan, some performed on computers, others on the piano, others on traditional and reconstructed Indonesian instruments; a vast body of work exploring the sonic potentialities of metals; orchestral pieces such as If And When It Will Ever Again Be Possible To Write A Piece For Symphony Orchestra (1969) – where “each player has a chance at uninhibited self-expression” – and conceptual sound pieces that range from the self-explanatory minimalism of One Note Once to a conceptual piece entitled Of Hearing The Whole World, which he describes as “a fantasy of an incredible scene, making things as complex as possible”.
“Mostly,” he admits, “I’ve worked around the edges, from some point, in. In pieces like One Note Once, I’ve worked towards an extreme position of: how much can you get rid of? How much do you not need? That’s a very extreme point. Beyond that you have silence which is even less. But in a certain sense silence isn’t less, it’s more. It opens up action, spontaneous theatre, noise, which you could say is diametrically opposed [to silence], 180 degrees in the opposite direction. But these are all extreme points.”
The sheer diversity of Corner’s work forces one to question what it means to talk about a composer or musician’s style. “I’ve noticed,” he says, “that I could be satisfied to stay at any one of these places, and you could say that a lot of people find their style doing that. But there’s no reason why you should be at one place any more than any other, minimal or maximal, jazz or ethnic. It just seemed arbitrary, culturally determined in the most provincial sense, that you find yourself at one particular point and stay there. Nevertheless at any one particular point there’s an infinite number of possibilities, and not just for yourself. In a way this kind of stuff is a discovery rather than an invention, one that’s opened up to other people too. Once these things are discovered, they’re part of human culture and tradition, open to the whole world forever. So I feel that for each one of these areas that was staked out, which manifested in my work, with the conscious resolve to push them in certain directions, I have gone to maximal extremes.”
Once inside the sound world with Corner, ideas flow forth in whole pages of precise thoughts. Try to come back to history, biography, time and he slows down, as though slugging through quicksand, not resentful, but suddenly unable to fly. Still, a few facts emerge. Corner was born in New York’s Bronx in 1933, where he began composing when 12. In 1955 he received a government grant to study in France, and attended Olivier Messiaen’s courses at the Conservatoire in Paris for the following two years, and was already composing Cage-like indeterminate works by the late 1950s.
In 1959, in a move he describes as “fortuitous”, Corner was drafted into the US army and sent to Korea, where he discovered what he calls “the most beautiful piece of music in the history of the world”, a Korean court orchestra piece called Sujecheon (Long Life, As Endless As The Sky). Somewhat similar in style to the Japanese gagaku court music that had a profound effect on minimalists like La Monte Young and their interest in slow tempos and duration. The music’s spaciousness, use of glissandi and very slow tempos made itself felt on Corner’s Situations, composed and performed in Korea, and on pieces like 1962’s Lovely Music, along with others to be found on the soon to be issued More From The Judson Years: Instrumental/Vocal Works on the Italian archival label Alga Marghen.
“One of the things I learnt in Korea was to go into the quality of sound,” says Corner. “I wanted to bring this notion into the range of possibilities – not in order to sound oriental, but to enter into this thing that the Orient had explored that the West hadn’t. And I pushed that as far as it could go, finding that place on the outside of the circle – which funnily enough leads to something that’s 180 degrees removed, which is self expression! Self expression’s supposed to be out. But there’s this link between the objectivity of listening to the world as it is, to sounds as they really are, and seeing in that self expression and feeling all the direct correlates of that in the human body, the human being. The wind blowing or the waves have the same quality as someone screaming or sighing. What’s coming from the inside of somebody’s experience is definitely related to how the world is working.”
Corner returned from Korea in 1961 to a New York in the middle of a creative renaissance. Suddenly dance, music, film, poetry, theatre, art and every other category of artistic production and experience were being gleefully taken apart and reassembled in a multiplicity of events, counter-events, actions and happenings that, much to the irritation of many involved, including Corner, have become associated with the name/word Fluxus.
“There was no such thing as ‘Fluxus’ at the time,” he asserts. “Let’s talk about specific people. Of course Cage I met during my Columbia days and got to know him pretty well. I also met Dick Higgins. My good friend was Malcolm Goldstein. Also Richard Maxfield. Some of these people had a foot in Fluxus, and some had other connections. Through Malcolm I met Jim Tenney, through whom I met Carolee Schneeman. Through Dick I met Alison Knowles and Jackson MacLow. La Monte Young. I knew George Brecht. I knew Yoko Ono from before I went to Korea. And then there was George Maciunas who was an organiser, who pulled together a lot of people who were already working, who’d already created a style and performed together. He put together some programmes and called it Fluxus and it became this thing with an ideology and a manifesto, everything else that is now causing confusion in the world about what Fluxus was and is.”
Depending on how you look at it, the early 1960s were either an excellent or a very bad time to be a piano. Corner’s Piano Activities was infamously performed at the 1962 Wiesbaden festival, which is often considered the inauguration of Fluxus. The piece, whose score advises a group of people to, among other things, “play”, “pluck or tap”, “scratch or rub”, “drop objects” on, “act on strings with”, “strike soundboard, pins, lid or drag various kinds of objects across them” and “act in any way on underside of piano” resulted in the total destruction of the piano at the hands of a group including Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Alison Knowles and George Maciunas, and was considered scandalous enough at the time to make it onto German television. Although Corner says that the objective was not necessarily to destroy the instrument, Piano Work (1970) features his high school students from the New Lincoln School in Harlem, taking an old piano apart with their hands in what he calls an “operatic” performance, while discussing their creative work of destruction. “Dig it!” says one student, gleefully.
Another early 1960s Corner piano piece of note is Keyboard Dances, which the composer performed at the Judson Dance Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. A Peter Moore photograph from this period shows him seated at the piano, his foot resting on the keyboard with a delicacy and precision somewhere between that of a dancer doing warmup exercises and a kung fu master about to chop a block of wood in two with one intensely focused blow. A reconstruction of one of these dances on 1998’s Forty Years Plus One: Philip Corner Plays The Piano (XI) confirms the surprising mixture of delicacy and pulsing keyboard clusters.
Corner moved through the world of the 1960s New York avant garde chronicled by performance critic Sally Banes in books like Greenwich Village 1963: The Effervescent Body and Democracy’s Body, her history of the Judson company, for whom he composed and performed a variety of pieces, collaborating with many key figures in contemporary dance including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and other future stars of the avant garde such as composer and vocalist Meredith Monk, cellist Charlotte Moorman and artist Robert Rauschenberg. He met his wife, the dancer Phoebe Neville there too. He also wrote for Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre and formed the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in 1963 with composers James Tenney and Malcolm Goldstein, to perform Charles Ives’s vocal music, which was at that time out of fashion – but soon branched out into performing their own work and those of their Fluxus pals.
During this period Corner expanded his use of non-traditional scores, hundreds of which have since been published in beautiful editions by Frog Peak Music (www.frogpeak.org). These scores offer an encyclopedia of alternative ways of describing a musical piece, ranging from a single sentence instruction (like the self-explanatory One Note Once) to a baroque visual mapping of possibilities of, say, one of his gamelan pieces, often involving calligraphic or other visual elements, blurring the line between a text, a painting and a piece of music.
What sound at first like ‘improvisations’ are in fact well crafted sets of parameters and instructions to be observed by the performing group, giving rise to chaotic spontaneities and regrouped constellations of order that are as much a discovery for the performers as for any audience. Most of the compositions do not indicate particular instrumentation. As with the work of a number of the key New York composers of that period, “the concept is the composition… It’s certainly not just a question of, Well, we’re here, we’re free, let’s do anything we want,” Corner continues. “It’s always bothered me that the tradition that we’ve come down with, of music literature, has pushed us into putting down every note and turning the interpreter into a technician. This ridiculous idea of the will of the composer and the perfect realisation of the score. The idea of allowing personal variation, whether improvised or done by ear, has always been attractive to me. With my scores, instead of detail being defined, such as the tune, etcetera, the framework is indicated. My work has a range of possibilities that can be defined.”
In the case of Corner’s Elementals, which consists of a series of ‘fill in the blank spaces’ for pitch, tempo, instrument, etc, that range is quite considerable. The piece received its premiere in 1977 at New York’s Kitchen, at the suggestion of the venue’s music director Rhys Chatham, in a performance that lasted for five days, involving up to 40 musicians at different times, all playing a C sharp at a tempo of once per second. Alga Marghen hopes to put the recordings out as a DVD soon.
However beautiful the recordings of Corner’s work from the 1960s are, to really experience his work, you should get together with a group of friends (or enemies, for that matter) and actually perform them. While certainly not unique in doing this, Corner’s work from the 1960s opened a door out of the controlled space of the stage, not to say the medium of recorded music, to a more general experience of the sound world. In 1965’s never realised Vietnam War piece, Anti-Personnel Bomb, drastic means of emptying the concert hall were conceived. “It basically says, an anti-personnel bomb will be thrown into the audience, and you print that on the programme as the title of the piece. And then the performance of the piece is to announce that the piece won’t be performed,” comments Corner. In I Can Walk Through The World As Music, from the same year, he took the audience at New York’s Town Hall for a sound walk around Times Square, one of many pieces that focuses on the act of listening to sounds rather than creating them. In 1972, with his first wife Julie Winter, Corner started Sounds Out Of Silent Spaces, a music ritual collective that met twice monthly at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. The group, which included Alison Knowles, Daniel Goode, Charlie Morrow and William Hellermann at various times, would begin each evening with improvisations on found objects and instruments, moving into drone chanting followed by a silent meditation and ending with dance/rhythm based pieces. For Corner, the group provided a way of exploring the spiritual potential of music, without needing to link it to any particular idea of spirituality or spiritual tradition. “Everything is spiritual, depending on how you look at it,” he says. “I certainly think all music is spiritual. I always thought that the most evident spirituality came from chanting on one note – so minimalism, music that eliminates a lot of things in a quite objective way, leads you to a concentrated inner experience. But I wanted the deepest spiritual experiences pure, without the contamination of religious doctrine.”
In 1972, Corner accepted a position in the music department at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers University that had been a Fluxus stronghold since the late 1950s. The College hired ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary in 1973, who, having studied gamelan on the West Coast with Lou Harrison, decided to build an Indonesian gamelan for students to practise on, using instructions supplied by Berkeley Gamelan founder Daniel Schmidt, a sheet of steel and a lot of old grapefruit tins. Benary herself was initially against the idea of mixing Eastern and Western traditions, but as Corner’s New Music Performing Group and composer Daniel Goode became increasingly involved, and Gamelan Son Of Lion (‘Ben Ari’ is ‘son of lion’ in Hebrew) came into being, the group started to develop in a way that, as Benary says, “had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music”.
Gamelan has a long, rich history as an object of inspiration and appropriation for Western composers, going back to Debussy, who heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. Some composers working with gamelan, like Colin McPhee, lived in Bali for periods of time, while others, like Henry Cowell, studied and taught it as part of surveys of World Music. The measured, formal qualities of traditional gamelan at first appear to be highly resistant to the spontaneous singularities characteristic of Corner’s previous work. Surprisingly, an interest in numbers opened the gamelan up to him. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach,” he acknowledges, “and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which numbers always seemed to inhibit. But I can go back to my work in the 1950s, stuff that was even more indeterminate than Cage, but pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation. I never renounced long tones fading into silence, gonglike sounds floating in untuned space. With the gamelan you don’t necessarily hear that, but everything is tuned that way, and it still sounds like objects floating in pre-rational space.”
Just as chaos theory shows how mathematical formulae can themselves produce highly unpredictable and complex patterns, pieces like the marvellous Gamelan on Three Pieces For Gamelan, which begins with a slow deep gong sound fading into silence and gradually adds higher pitched instruments playing at increasingly rapid tempos, or the graphically scored Gamelan PC on Gamelan In The New World Vol 2, apply apparently simple principles of pitch and time measurement to each of the individual instruments in the gamelan, collectively producing a rich, highly complex permutating sound.
The other strand that connects Corner’s interest in gamelan to his earlier work is a fascination with the sonic qualities of metal, which he investigated on 1960s works such as the exuberant, booming Gong! or 1973’s Metal Meditations, in which improvisors including David Behrmann explore the resonances of amplified bells and other metal sources. “I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom,” Corner recalls, “and metal involves the possibility of noise as well as resonance, the oriental idea of sound dying away into silence, the use of silence, static sounds and all of that.” The gamelan provided a whole set of new possibilities for meditating on metal – and over the following 20 years, Corner produced more than 400 such pieces.
Gamelan Son Of Lion released the first of two volumes entitled Gamelan In The New World on Moses Asch’s Folkways Records in 1979 (both have recently been reissued by Locust; full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes). The two sets are wonderfully fragile, childlike recordings: beginner’s mind or luck, backed by a fierce determination not to produce anything remotely resembling traditional Indonesian music. Dika Newlin’s Machine Shop, for example, was “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, NJ”, although the set’s most exquisite moment, Benary’s In Scrolls Of Leaves, with its melodious zither, invokes Indian classical music.
“There was a conscious decision, certainly not to impose a group style, but among the leaders there was a desire not to create neo-exotic music – although there was a lot of minimalist, repetitive stuff going on in the 1980s,” Corner recalls. “When I got to the West Coast I saw that there was another aspect to it. That we were [adopts singsong by-rote voice] ‘reactionary East Coasters under the umbrella of the European tradition’, unable to free ourselves from 20th century European avant gardism while they in California were part of a pan-Pacific culture which included Indonesia and Korea and that was really their culture, so that they could do that. And Lou [Harrison] did what he was doing, but there were others who were doing quasi-traditional pieces. I used to call this California style, ‘afternoon on the beach’. To me it had very little to do with real Indonesian music, which somehow, because of Lou’s genius, crept into his music anyway.”
Harrison himself was criticised for using non-traditional elements, especially in later works, such as Suite For Violin And American Gamelan where he mixes Western and Eastern instruments. Corner, who returned to the Bay Area to study with Harrison in 1982, felt that Harrison’s approach to gamelan was “absolutely against everything I believe – that here’s an American composer who decides that he is going to imitate faithfully classical Javanese music and write in a classical Javanese style, just as someone might say, ‘I’m going to do Palestrina counterpoint exercises and call them compositions’. I said: ‘This is absolutely absurd!’ The only thing is that Lou makes it work. And that to me is a great miracle. I just had to accept that.”
Corner himself finally visited Indonesia in 1986, ten years after he began composing for gamelan. In an interview with gamelan composer Jody Diamond made just before his trip, he argued that “you can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.”
Corner was well received and collaborated with Javanese composers, such as Michael Asmara, with whom he remains in touch, but his involvement with gamelan ended when he left New York for Italy in 1992. However, Benary and Goode have continued to compose and perform with Gamelan Son Of Lion, and have issued a number of new recordings.
In the famous rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari talk about the symbiotic relationship between an orchid and the wasp that seeks out the flower and distributes its pollen. The idea of this productive meeting and collaboration of two or more entirely unrelated objects or beings, resonates with many of Corner’s compositions and ideas, not to mention his theories of harmony, which he developed through an intense interest in exploring the sonic properties of metal.
“The essential harmony is dissonant,” he declares. “Everything we call harmony is essentially counterpoint. Putting together single tones – the relationship between single tones. We use harmony as a kind of prejudice, against disharmony. Some relationships are acceptable, some aren’t. Some we call harmonious, some we don’t. But I see it all as essentially counterpoint. Whenever you take distinct pitches and put them together in combinations, it’s counterpoint.”
The notion that literally any combination of tones is harmonic flies in the face of the equal temperament tuning system that has dominated Western classical music since Bach, but it’s equally foreign to those who favour alternative tuning systems, such as Just Intonation, grounded in particular mathematical or physical principles of sound. For Corner, harmony is about relationship, and relationship is a good thing, the more sonically complex the better, as evidenced by recent works like a p o t h e o s e from Pieces Of Acoustic Reality, in which he conducts metal meditations while an old recording of Baroque composer François Couperin’s Apothéose De Lully plays. It should sound ‘wrong’, but it doesn’t – it sounds contemporary, in the same way that French film maker Jean-Luc Godard’s soundtrack use of classical music sources might.
“Harmony has to do with a sonic entity that does not collapse into an accumulation of components, pitches,” explains Corner. “It’s inherently dense. So the closest approach in equal temperament is a cluster. It’s no surprise that the effect of a cluster is not really violent – if you want violent, dissonant sound, one does much better to have, say, major seventh and minor ninth chords with spaces in between, emphasising the dissonant intervals. When you use a cluster, you can play them very subtly, very softly, and they’re cool, they’re very refreshing, very harmonious. You approach the limit where you can distinguish the components. If you go further, into entities where the component vibrations are much smaller, narrower than the limits of equal temperament, you start getting what I call real harmony. And the model in nature for that is a waterfall. Which is a supercluster. And the flat gong, which doesn’t emphasise a single tone, also creates a wash of sound over a broad spectrum in which the individual components are not extractable. So, to me, that’s harmony.“
It’s also the kind of harmony that sums up Corner’s entire lifework – a supercluster of experimental approaches to creating sound-based works. “I was interested in moving beyond pattern!” he concludes. “I feel it’s necessary to go to the circumference because the circumference is where any one thing equals everything. And it’s just as important to go there as to the centre. But, going there [to the circumference], what you get on the way is the elimination of pattern and you end up with raw material. My music has been concerned with all these elements, possibilities, whether of pulse, single tones, even spontaneity, outcry – as raw material, a totally distilled element of raw nature. As you move towards the centre where human cultures have always been, you find patterned complexities of these elements. I was always interested in revealing the elements, through a process of microscopy, finding the elements, asking: what’s underneath, what’s the thing behind them all?”

More From the Judson Years: Instrumental-Vocal Works Vols 1 and 2 are out this month on Alga Marghen; Gamelan Son Of Lion’s The Complete Gamelan In The New World is out now on Locust. Corner’s scores are available from Frog Peak Music (www.frogpeak.org)

Tim Hecker

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

The life of a Honduran shrimp fisherman is not an obvious theme for a piece of cutting edge post-glitch, beatless, wordless electronica, but that’s what Montreal-based Tim Hecker’s new Mille Plateaux release, Radio Amor is about. “I was totally obsessed with the idea of fishermen in the Caribbean,” recalls Hecker. “Fucked up, crapped out transmissions that weren’t receiving totally. Disjunctures in every form. Just the loneliness of being at sea – the idea of the heat, the shitty radios they have on their boats, the sea.” If that’s the case, this is probably the most un-tropical piece of music about the Caribbean ever made – no beats, just surging drones and distorted tone clusters, laced with static and noise. Although Hecker did make a trip to Central America in the mid-1990s, the piece seems built more around the pathos of remembering what sunshine is like, while sitting in his home studio in the middle of a long Canadian winter. “The bitter irony is that when I was recording it,” Hecker says ruefully, “I was in this confined space. Maybe no windows. It’s ironic because in my own mind, the music’s totally referential when I’m making it. But I’m not there at all. I’m in this hot room and it’s snowing outside, minus thirty probably.” Unusually for an electronic musician, Hecker is fascinated by the possibility of giving his ambient, abstract music a thematic shape. “It’s easy to put together nine tracks on your hard disk, press burn and send it off to the label. The fruit really comes when you stop that burn button and think more about what you’re doing. I spend a lot of time putting things together and assembling a narrative. You create some sort of fiction out of it. You could say all that stuff about Caribbean fisherman is total fiction – it’s a practice of writing in a way.” While a song with lyrics is readily understood to be “about” something, Hecker’s work instead creates a fascinating tension between the formless beauty made possible by electronic sound and the listener and musician’s desire for music to tell a story, even if its just the “ambient” story of machines, isolation, absence etc. On 2000’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again, released on Montreal’s Alien8, the narrative appears to be about Canada, and the ambient paradise of the Great Frozen North. “That’s a currency that I exploited as a joke – the Canadian clichés of the tundra and all the fucking snow and shit. That sounds good. In the same way, I exploited the idea of this Caribbean shrimp fisherman on the last one. It’s so easily adaptable to any context. You can say this is about Japanese sado-masochism. It might work. It might also work with penguins on an iceberg that’s about to disintegrate.”

Hecker grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, listening to indie rock. He relocated to Montreal in the 1990s where he studied political philosophy and paramilitary policing with cyber-theorist Arthur Kroker, and inspired by Kroker’s homages to the posthuman joys of the machine, bought some gear and began putting out Autechre-inspired minimalist techno tracks on Force Inc. subsidiary Pitch Cadet under the name of Jetone. By the time of his second CD, 2001’s Ultramarin, Hecker already shows signs of getting tired of the minimalist techno paradigm. Beats drop in and out, clouds of noise and ambient sound hover in the mix. It’s a beautiful work, but one that Hecker is eager to distance himself from: “I had a huge reaction against electronic music because it became so self-referential. I just felt nothing. Beats add a completely arbitrary, artificial structure to things. It seems so much more constricting. It’s all this über-associations: people hear the beat and then determine where it fits into in electronic music where there’s now 500 different micro genres.” Hecker’s first venture into beatlessness, Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again owes as much to Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine as minimalist electronica. “What they did was amazing”, says Hecker, “white noise and walls of sound: I still don’t think people have realized the potential of pure melodic dissonance – overwhelming tones, tectonic tone plates of sound.” His follow-up My Love is Rotten To the Core, a commissioned set of performance pieces, was based around the history and sound of 1980s pop metal giants, Van Halen. Although the bombastic noise-laced samples initially sound like Kid 606-style deconstructions, there’s greater subtlety and purpose to Hecker’s effort.

Hecker’s sampling and manipulations feel like they’re exposing Hagar, Eddie Van Halen et al. to the void, by creating an enormous “ambient” arena, into which their pronouncements, solos and the like, echo and fade. “The more I got into it, the more I got into David Lee Roth and I found he was quite a sage guru. The things he said were totally fucked and totally intelligent. He seemed like a sad clown, a tragic-comic character.” Hecker is skeptical of electronica’s tendency to run through the available iterations of any piece of software or hardware and then move on to the next one. In a recent piece published in Canadian ‘zine Parachute, Hecker writes, “Perhaps a form of electronic music will come which will leave the technology it uses as only a trace – so that the aesthetic field opens up again to allow for spaces which are free from the suffocation of medium-based discourses; an electronic music which leaves its technology as just a murmur.” Hecker’s recent music is certainly heading in that direction. Radio Amor, like Oval’s Diskont 94 or Fennesz’s Endless Summer, succeeds because Hecker finds a way to produce a fluid, living sound that can no longer be said to be “electronic” according to all the cold, machine stereotypes, or “organic” in the sense that it’s the result of a live performance on traditional musical instruments. Hecker sets up vast drifting rhizomes of sound in which live guitar and piano merge with samples and are fed through multiple pathways of sound processing until everything blurs in an intermeshing sonic field. In a sense, all sound sources are finally being sampled and sonically processed. “When you sample something,” says Hecker, “if you have good source material with a certain chord progression or an emotive quality, you can’t go wrong with what you make from that. The essence remains. When you have a beautiful chord and you’re fucking with it, you can’t do too much wrong with it because you’re gonna have a fucked up, beautiful chord at the end!”

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 (www.getyourwaron.org), 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.

A literature under the influence: Writers’ odysseys into the drug world

A review of The Road of Excess by Rebecca Shannonhouse for the Boston Globe that was originally published in print on May 4, 2003.

”Confessions of an English Opium Eater” may be the best-known narrative in the rich history of drug literature, but Thomas De Quincey is clearly not the only author to mine the depths of drug-inspired writing. In Marcus Boon’s ambitious book, ”The Road of Excess,” De Quincey is but one player in a massive ensemble of notable writers whose work is informed by their use – or study – of mind-altering substances.

In an impressive display of scholarship, Boon meticulously chronicles the connection between writers and drugs. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Jack Kerouac, writers’ personal odysseys into the dizzying world of drugs are depicted with a novelist’s eye for detail. Boon, an assistant professor of English at York University in Toronto, creates order of this heretofore largely uncharted history in five well-rounded essays examining how literature has been influenced by narcotics, anesthetics, cannabis, stimulants, and psychedelics.

Through liberal use of anecdotes, Boon helps transform what could have been a dry recitation of cultural and literary artifacts into a feast of historical surprises. In the opening pages, Voltaire, besieged by pain on his deathbed in 1778, becomes delirious after taking opium. Although his death could not be attributed to the opium alone (the cause was most likely prostate cancer), the drug was clearly being used in ample doses well before De Quincey so boldly publicized it in his autobiographical ”Confessions,” published in 1821.

Drawing from yet another corner of obscure drug history, Boon notes that Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), a noted physician and grandfather of Charles, also had his day with opium long before De Quincey first took the drug. The elder Darwin not only prescribed opium as an antidote to hundreds of ailments but also wrote poetry about the poppy and other plants in his ”The Loves of the Plants” (1789). During that same period, a fellow physician and the author of the widely read medical text ”Elementa Medicinae,” John Brown (1735-1788), also touted the medicinal virtues of opium. Offering another shade of context to the opium saga, Boon reminds us that even William Shakespeare cast the drug in the pages of ”Othello.”

In consistently engaging writing, Boon also describes the popularization of morphine. Named after Morpheus, the god of dreams, morphine first entered the lexicon of drug literature in 1805, when a German pharmacist named Friedrich Serturner recorded his experiences in taking the drug orally. Even the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning partook of the oral morphine tradition that continued throughout the first half of the 19th century. With the discovery of the hypodermic syringe in 1850, morphine quickly won a following as an injected drug.

Boon introduces a modern sensibility in noting that the concept of addiction did not emerge until the 1870s, when German psychologists identified some of the more lugubrious effects caused by frequent drug use. Soon, the notion garnered support in France, where such notables as Prince Otto von Bismarck, General Georges Boulanger, and the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot were already addicted to morphine. In 1877, one of the first addiction specialists, Edouard Levinstein, offered his ”authoritative” – yet short-sighted – opinion by noting that morphine had no long-lasting, detrimental effects on one’s ability to function.

Though Boon could have easily focused his book more narrowly on, say, the impact of drugs on 19th-century literature, it’s gratifying to see that he’s given us much more than a mere historical account. The modern-day heroin chronicler Ann Marlowe, author of the 1999 drug classic ”How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z,” is featured in the book. To demonstrate the influence of drugs on 20th-century writers, Boon introduces, among others, the Beat writers Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, whose drug-induced writing comes closer than any other written work to capturing the wild and ultimately indefinable nature of the human thought process.

If one reads between the lines, Boon’s chapter on stimulants presents us with a compelling explanation for today’s pervasive Starbucks culture. Much like our highly commercialized coffee hangouts, the early coffeehouses promoted what Boon so aptly labels a ”culture of conversation.” But in the private lives of individual writers, the almighty stimulant served a more utilitarian function. We learn that Honore de Balzac, who was said to have consumed 50,000 cups of coffee in his lifetime, attributed much of his speedy writing technique to its effects. Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jean-Paul Sartre also relied heavily on coffee.

In setting the stage for cocaine’s emergence, Boon points out that exhaustion was a frequent complaint among cocaine users when the drug was first popularized in the 1880s. As evidence of its salutary effects, sober medical accounts noted that cocaine delivered a powerful form of relief from fatigue. Sigmund Freud praised cocaine even more enthusiastically, noting that the drug cured morphine addiction as well as an assortment of medical ailments. Later, of course, it became apparent that cocaine was, in fact, addictive – a pesky detail that forced Freud to reconsider his zealous promotions of the drug.

Though it is a scholarly endeavor, Boon’s new work reads more like a wide-eyed, joyous romp through a literary statesman’s funhouse, where each room contains a masterfully told tale of opium or morphine, peyote or LSD, coffee or cocaine. We see a gallery of our most prized literary lions, many of them stripped bare of their pristine reputations. It is mind-teasing exercise that is well worth the trip.

Sarah Peebles: Electronic Bug Culture

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

“I really enjoy the sound of hummingbirds,” says Toronto-based composer Sarah Peebles. “In New Mexico there are a lot of them and I recorded them. That sound is really interesting and when you cut it up and slow it down, to me there’s a transformation that occurs, especially since I have a memory of when they were flying by.” On her recently re-released CD Insect Groove, Peebles has opened up an astonishing sound-space in which natural and synthesized elements co-exist, in such a way that they become indistinguishable from each other. The Japanese reed mouth organ, the shô, played by Peebles and Ko Ishikawa, sounds like a droning just intonation tuned synthesizer, while Peebles’ real time software based sampling and programming transforms recordings of night-time insects, gongs, or railways into warm, bubbling pools of sound. This is a music that does not wear the listener out through relentless repetition, the way so much electronica does, nor does it have the sometimes saccharine serenity of ambient music. It is intense, slow, focused, neither natural nor unnatural, full of delicious singularities – another kind of fourth world music. Peebles grew up in Minnesota, and studied music at the University of Michigan, where she began broadcasting the ongoing radio show The Audible Woman, devoted to showcasing what she calls the “kick-ass activity” of women in classical and experimental music. In 1985, she made her first trip to Japan, where she lived on and off until 1993, and made a multi-year study of gagaku, the hypnotic Japanese court music beloved of La Monte Young et al, and kagura bayashi, a form of masked dance drama performed at Shinto festivals. Her work from this period, collected on Suspended in Amber (Nova, 1996), mixes traditional Japanese instrumentation and forms with electronics. The remarkable “Tomoé” recorded live in a Shinto temple, is at once a site specific electro-acoustic recording, a “traditional” ritual using temple bells and the space of the temple’s hall and garden, a performance piece featuring calligraphy and light, and a sound-work using field recordings of insects and water from Toronto alongside the sound of the shô. Peebles, who relocated to Toronto in 1990, recently composed 108 – Walking Through Tokyo At The Turn of the Century, a fifty minute edited set of street recordings made in Tokyo which continues her interest in Japanese sound culture and environmental recordings. “If you ask a Tokyoite to shut their eyes and give them a tour around town, they’ll tell you where they are without opening their eyes. There’s a consciousness of sound that goes with their culture that’s different to mine,” she observes. “Take bugs, for example. I noticed a real affection for insects, even in the inner city. There’s a history of bug collecting. And now there’s an electronic bug culture of toys too. It extends to seasonal appreciation too. When you’re going to send a card or a present, you think in terms of seasons. I know other cultures do that, but that was my first exposure to that. Sound goes with occasions. Occasions demand sound. The ringing in of the new year, the buying of a ticket, restaurant greetings and farewells. The doors in the subway: there’s a song for each subway station! And the fact is it occurred to them to do that, while in Toronto, all you get is the same boring voice for each station!” Peebles’ current work involves the possibility of creating music made to accompany natural visual phenomena. She describes a work in progress called “Music for Incandescent Events” that can accompany “light events”, such as sunsets, the northern lights – and live volcanoes. “ I just took a trip to an active volcano in Hawaii, and you can watch lava flowing, but it changes hour by hour, so it would be hard to put the music in a place where its not going to get covered by the active volcano. Unless you put it on headphones. But volcanoes are so profound you wouldn’t really want to add any sonic event to them. We saw a very slow quiet molten oozing lava – and loud tourists! I asked someone to shut up so that I could hear the sound, a really delicate sound, of the crust that begins to form on the hot stuff as its moving – it flakes off the surface from the heat – little metallic sounds. Very delicate.” Still on the look out for some grand statement about nature, the environment and sound ecology, that might explain the way Peebles uses field recordings as raw materials for her Max programming and live, in situ manipulation of samples, I ask her “is all sound just sound then?” “No!” Peebles replies, sounding genuinely surprised. “There’s emotions associated with sound. And memory. Most of the sounds I use I’ve recorded, and I have visceral memories of the sound, the day I recorded it, what the day was like and what I was feeling like. Sound has the capacity to evoke visceral memories.” If there’s a key to Peebles’ work, it’s her ability to place things in relationships with each other: whether they be instruments, sounds, people or media. Most of Peebles’ work is in some sense collaborative, whether it be her work with the excellent Sri Lankan born Canadian mutant Hendrix drone guitarist Nilan Perera as power-duo Smash and Teeny (touring the UK this month), or Cinnamon Sphere, featuring Perera and Korean-Canadian calligrapher Chung Gong Ha, or her recent work with Canadian live video performance duo _badpacket_ , or Cream Test Centrifuge, her collaboration with The Wire’s David Toop, Perera and Canadian composer Darren Copeland. Peebles’ work celebrates the possible relationships between things, wherever they’re from. “I like to watch the stars, I like to listen to insects in the summertime, and I like to sit and watch the clouds. I like to play music. I like to think up music – I guess we call that composing! It’s just an exploration. It’s an exploration to get together with a dancer, to see where that goes. And it’s an exploration to get together with a sunset, to see where that goes too.” Insect Groove has been reissued on Cycling 74; 108-Walking Through Tokyo is out on Post-Concrète; Smash and Teeny will be performing live in the UK in May.