12k/LINE: Zen and the Art of the Drum Machine

This was originally published in the April 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Minimalism Keeps Getting Starker”, announce the sleeve-notes to Chronologi, a compilation of recordings from the first four years of Brooklyn based Taylor Deupree’s ultraminimal label 12k. So stark that Deupree recently started a separate side label, LINE, with Washington DC based sound artist Richard Chartier to explore mostly beatless realms of virtual silence. Chartier’s recently issued Of Surfaces must rank alongside fellow LINE artist Bernhard Gunter’s work as one of the quietest CDs ever made. For the first two and a half minutes, you think that there’s been a mistake. You check your audio equipment to make sure all the settings are right. Your ears strain to hear something as the LCD on the CD player indicates that track 1 is still in progress. The first muffled bass sounds make you wonder if your speakers are fucked up. The second louder bass sounds at 03:48 make you wonder if your attempts to hear something by cranking the volume up to 10 are now going to fuck the speakers up. An infinitely subtle, almost imperceptible drone starts up. Then it fades again. There’s a surprising level of tension, as you await the next sound event. And afterwards, the effects linger. You hear a drone, a rumbling bass sound, and wonder whether you have left the CD on. It’s “just” a car, or the rain, or the sound of the fridge in the next room. But suddenly you are listening to it. Your ears have received a brief training in sensitivity to the almost imperceptible.
Talking the day before his first LINE CD Series is to be exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, the most prestigious fine art show in America, Chartier recalls that, “as a child I was always mimicking appliances, like the refrigerator. I loved listening to its low frequency hum. I like the subtleties of low or really high frequencies. We live in a culture that’s dominated by information, and information is noise, whether it’s visual or audio. People don’t listen to small things because usually they’re drowned out. I got email from someone in New York saying, “I can’t listen to your music because my environment’s too loud, there’s too much going on.” Most people don’t grow up in a situation where they’re required to listen – so anything small, or subtle or barely there is lost because they’ve tuned it out.”
Chartier and Deupree’s collaboration on LINE, as well as their recent 12k CD After, whose main track was recorded live with Kim Cascone at Mutek, the Canadian sound art mecca, says a lot about the current state of digital sound culture. While Chartier comes from a strong visual arts background, Deupree first surfaced as a member of Prototype 909, a popular early nineties US techno act, famous for their live machine improv rave shows. Deupree’s gradual disenchantment with rave’s beats n drugs culture and his growing interest in stripped down sound is revealed on Chronologi which shows 12k’s development, from early 1997 ambient FSOL-like projects such as Human Mesh Dance’s Thesecretnumbertwelve with it’s 808 rhythms, to the drifting spaces of Kim Cascone’s “Bufferdrift” and the beautiful ambient shapes of Dan Abrams’ Shuttle358. Deupree now says he prefers to perform in gallery spaces: “People have this connotation when they go see you in a club that they’re gonna talk or dance, and I’ve had disastrous club shows where the wrong audience shows up, expecting something else. When you play at a gallery, people are going in with a different idea, they’re not expecting a dance show. But you say club and electronic music and people think techno.”
Both Chartier and Deupree are fascinated by the CD as an object that straddles the visual and audio cultural worlds. Deupree, who designs all the 12k releases, with their elegantly minimal slimline jewel cases, notes that “when I began listening to electronic music in the early eighties, I used to buy records based on their covers, before I was aware of “graphic design”, just because they looked cool. I became familiar with designers like Peter Saville and Neville Brody, labels like 4AD and Factory . When someone compared 12k to Factory, it was the biggest compliment of my entire life.”
Poised between the music and art worlds, 12k and LINE’s “sound art” blurs the boundaries between the two worlds – it’s sold as a CD in record stores, even though the CDs don’t necessarily contain “music”. “We create this work on a CD,” says Chartier, “which has the ability to be purchased and consumed by the public. It’s blurs the line between fine art, something unaffordable which you have to go to a gallery to see or hear, and something that you can take into your home or put on your MP3 player. But if you remove the sound work from the package and the medium of the compact disc, it becomes something totally different.” 12k’s website based mp3 label term. focuses on the ephemeral quality of digital sound, not to mention it’s tendency to proliferate into infinite versions and collaborations. Deupree says that term., which has so far released work by Sogar and Goem side-project Freiband “is the representation of pure data and imageless sound information. The antithesis of physical form … all downloads will be available for a finite period of time only.”
A good introduction to Deupree’s aesthetic can be found on the 1999 Caipirinha compilation Microscopic Sound, which Deupree assembled, featuring stripped down but funky tracks by the likes of Ryoji Ikeda, Thomas Brinkmann and rastermusic founder Frank Bretschneider. At their best, these tracks sound like blueprints for a manual on Zen and the Art of the Drum Machine: it feels like you are hearing an 808 for the first time. Much of Deupree’s work, including Balance his just issued collaboration with Bretschneider on Mille Plateaux, maintains a strongly rhythmic pulse, but one that can be focused on as sound rather than a groove to dance to: “I’m really interested in repetition, so to me an interesting sound is often one that can be heard over and over again. When you hear a sound repeating, a small loop, you often start to hear other things within the sound. The more you concentrate, the more you hear some little fluctuation in the sound that starts to become really apparent.”
Chartier, whose own work is almost rhythm (not to mention sound) free, believes that the computer offers the possibility for new types of minimalist sound: “if you think of the work of people like Reich or Glass, who’ve been designated minimalists, it’s minimalist in a musical sense, but not in a physical sense. To me their work is very busy, active. The advent of digital audio has greatly increased what composers can do in terms of using the aspect of silence as a compositional element. Where it really is silent, not an analog silence that has that hiss. With digital silence, there’s nothing. An absolute zero – no code. My work is really a process of removal. Sometimes a piece will be based on one [looped] sound with things layered over it, and then eventually I will take the original linking element out. So it’s this ghost element that’s not really there. That’s what I like about working with sound as opposed to paint and canvas: especially working on a computer, you can take away sound until there’s really nothing left.”
The 12k. compilation Chronologi is out on Instinct; Cascone, Chartier and Dupree’s After is out now on 12k; Chartier’s Of Surfaces is on LINE; Bretschneider and Deupree’s Balance is on Mille Plateaux. For more information, go to www.12k.com.

Ocean of Sound (Ocean of Silence): Siri Karunamayee talks to Marcus Boon

This was originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Ascent Magazine. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I first met Sri Karunamayee at a music workshop held in Rishikesh last winter, where she was teaching Indian classical music, alongside other students of the great Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, and other members of the Kirana gharana, India’s foremost school of classical singing. Aside from her beautiful voice, Sri Karunamayee’s classes were impressive in the way they stressed the fundamentals of singing and sound. The roots of her ability to articulate a philosophy of sound and it’s Divine nature can be found in her life story.
Sri Karunamayee was born into a family in Delhi that was devoted to spiritual music. She pursued parallel careers as a singer and an educator, achieving the status of a class ‘A’ broadcasting artist for All India Radio, while at the same time obtaining a Masters in Philosophy from Delhi University, and acting as head of the music department at V.M. College of Ghaziabad of Agra University. Throughout her life, she has been committed to music as a spiritual practice, seeking out the highest teachers like Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya, Vediji. She was one of the first students of Pandit Pran Nath, who in 1970 brought the Indian Classical vocal tradition to America, and numbered amongst his students, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley and Jon Hassell. Sri Karunamayee pays regular visits to North America, at the invitation of the Bay Area’s Sur-Laya-Sangam, to teach Hindustani vocal music.
One day in 1966 while traveling by bus in Delhi, she felt the urge to go visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in the outskirts of the city. There, she Encountered the Ashram’s founder, an old family friend and holy man named Sri Surendra Nath Jauhar Fakir. Strangely, she heard an ‘inner call’, and offered to sing a song for him. After much persuasion, he gave in, and she sang, reducing the room to tears. Mindful of the time, she made her excuses to leave, but was refused. She remains at the Ashram to this day, teaching and engaged in her Sadhana.
I visited Sri Karunamayee at Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi on a beautiful morning in May. The sound of cuckoos in the garden vied with the sound of auto-rickshaws, airplanes and the delightful urban chaos of Delhi. We spoke for several hours, with a large photo portrait of The Mother beaming down on us. The conversation was so exhilarating that even the Delhi public bus that I took back into the city center afterwards, a notorious source of discomfort, felt infinitely spacious and full of joy.

MB: In what way can we understand making music as a form of spiritual practice?
K: Music, and especially Pandit Pran Nath’s approach to music, is very close to silence, the Sunyatta, from which everything comes and to which everything returns. That music is so close to silence, that to attain it, one has to learn to go within, make the inward journey. It is not so easy. First one should have the aspiration to do so. One should know that there is something worthwhile in going to the depths, where there is not so much sensation, activity, turmoil and drama as on the surface. The very depths are so still and impenetrable. In our own selves there are such levels. If one wants to be fully dynamic and effective in the true sense we must contact and master this level of perfect silence and equilibrium. Playing with a top in full motion it appears static, fixed, and gray, but just a touch and lo, it assumes quite a turmoil, hectic movement and a riot of so many colors! This is what life is like. When you have achieved that balance, only then will you try to make this venture. You were asking about pop music earlier. If you want the surface, all the variety, thrills, change and change and change, then pop music is very good. But if you want to know what is the ultimate reason why all this has been created, and not just be tossed by the rising and falling of the waves, if you want to know where the power of the waves comes from, you have to go to the tides. And what controls the tides?

MB: How do you stop yourself from getting lost in those depths?
K: Indian music—the very blessing of the Divine as Shiva—has given us the gift of the tambura, the four stringed Veena or Drone, which gives you a feeling of groundedness, so you do not get lost as in Western music. The tambura will support you always. It is said that even Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning and music, when she enters the Nada Brahman, the ocean of sound, feels that it is so impenetrable, so profound, that she is concerned less she, the goddess of music, may be lost, inundated by it. So she places two gourds around her, in the form of Veena, and then she is guided by them into it.

MB: Such an ocean!
K: Yes. And that ocean of sound is the sound of silence. The depth of which is expressed in the sounds of the tambura.

MB: The sound is the reflection of the silence?
K: Yes. Silence: it is like the depth of depths. It is the eternal game of hide and seek. You may create any number of sophisticated games in the world, but the one game with universal appeal, which nobody is ever tired of, is the game of hide and seek. From the child to the oldest person. Everyone loves it. Sound: from where does it manifest? From where has it come? Where does it go? It merges into the ether, the Sunyatta, and then it re-emerges. Whether we are in the sound, or the sound is in us, it is always a mystery. Even when we are not striking up any sound, does the unstruck sound not emanate through us, in spite of us? The ocean of sound is composed of that struck and unstruck sound, all rolled into One. And we are a part of that. The drop is in the ocean. But the drop in the ocean can say, yes I am ocean.

MB: Are we sound?
K: We are sound. Aren’t we? When we are in control of sound, then we are sound. And that sound is just like when you hold a set of scales, on one side you keep the weight, on the other you keep the goods. So sound is balanced with silence. You cannot be fully aware of the beauty of this sound unless you have tasted silence.

MB: Are we silence then too?
K: Yes.

MB: How did you became involved in music?
K: Oh! My involvement in music? Surely it started before I was born. Because “sound-crazy” as I am, how could I not be born in a family which was already resounding with the music of masters like Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Fayyaz Khan and Pandit Bhatkande? Through my grandfather’s hummings, my father’s singing, my elder brother and sister’s practice, and through their teachers. But as a small child I liked to go to where nobody made any sound. Where two doors met in our house there was such a place, and I would just go and hide myself there. For hours I would stand there and feel the silence. Silence going into sound, and sound turning into silence. That was my favorite time. Sometimes my mother would look at the brood and say “uh oh, where is Karuna?” We were a big family. I had to find my own corner of silence, which was essential for my existence.

MB: Did you have a formal music instructor?
K: At the age of six, good teachers were coming and teaching my brother and sister. But I was very small and it was not considered necessary for me. But I had a gift. Whenever I heard some music it just became ingrained in me. My consciousness of silence kept my slate very clean. Most of the time I enjoyed the silence, even when everyone was talking, I felt a kind of echo of the silence, as if I was in a tunnel, untouched by any of it. Whatever I heard was imprinted, and I found myself singing in that way. Nobody cared. I would just put my head down and start going sa-re-ga-ma. Sometimes I would hear my sound very clearly. I would think: it may be that my sound is not heard, but I can think of music! And holding that thread, not of the sound that I’m making, but of the concept of sound, with that I would go up the scales for many octaves. And then I would say, alright, let me come down, keeping the thread, and I would find my voice becoming audible, very clear, and then deep, and then less clear, more unheard, but I could go deep also. This was my favorite exercise. I would go higher and higher like the birds at noontime in the sky. Then I would imagine that somebody is taking water out of a well. You can go as deep as you want. There is no limit on either side, up or down. So I experienced infinity in height and depth through sound and silence. It gives you control over your mind. A thread of sound.
But you asked about formal instruction. In answer to my deepest aspiration for music as the path for my self-realization, at the age of twelve I was blessed by the teaching of Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya of Gwalior Gharana, a second generation disciple of the savant of Indian music, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who initiated me into the depths and lofty heights of Indian music with crystal clear understanding and with a due sense of devotion and commitment for which I am so grateful.

MB: When did you first meet Pandit Pran Nath?
K: I met him in 1953 at a music festival in Delhi. This was a difficult time in Guruji’s life. His master, Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan had just died and Guruji was like a person who was very disturbed, uprooted. When Guruji started singing, my teacher Dadaji said to me, “Listen carefully, this is the music for singing for which you have taken birth on earth.” Guruji sang “Miyan Ki Mulhar.” That is a raga of rain. At certain moments, when Guruji sang, it seemed that he collected the breath of all of us, and held it for some time, and then gave it release. About five thousand people were sitting in that hall. So he held the breath of us all, collected our breath through his own breath, held it at one pitch and then let go. When he let go, we also let go. And that opened our eyes. I could never imagine that someone could hold the breath of other people. It was a shock to me. All this can be done with music! And when he ended there was torrential rain! And suddenly Pran Nathji got up, he was very sad and frustrated and angry, and he said, “I’m not a musician, I’m only a teacher.” And he left the stage. We were very shocked.

MB: The first time I heard a recording of him, I thought it sounded wrong. I couldn’t understand what he was doing. I’d never heard someone consciously trying to do what he was doing. It educated my ears.
K: You need to develop a special faculty. Then you can hear. Supposing someone is born with no faculty to smell. You say, “Oh a rose smells so beautiful!” He says, “What are you talking about?” Sri Aurobindo said people live in a three dimensional world. But in fact we live in a four dimensional world. What is the fourth dimension? The Divine. To live with or without the Divine: it is like living with or without a dimension. So living with or without music is living with or without a dimension. Music is a dimension of our existence. I first realized this when I heard everyone’s breath held in one man’s hand— and unless he decided to let go, we couldn’t release our breath. Five thousand people sitting there. So this can be done. But what is happening in between the breaths? I became aware of that when I started learning from Pran Nathji.

MB: What was Pandit Pran Nath like as a teacher?
K: He was a great teacher. He would expect the best from you and could bring out the best. Every step: the way of looking at notes, at rhythm, everything was Divine approach. With him I felt there was no difference between Divine experience and musical experience. Life was music, life was Divine. It was one experience. He said: music is just like waves, it is continuity, sometimes one aspect is shown more, another time, another aspect. It should be a total experience. I always used to look at notes from different angles, but he taught me to look at a note in its totality all at the same time. All at the same time: you see how it is rising, and at the same time, how it is balancing to fall down.

MB: So it could go in any direction?
K: Yes. The real music is between the notes, that is Pandit Pran Nath’s special contribution. Notes are landmarks but in-between much happens. When a child is growing from childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, there are so many stages of maturity. One Marcus was born as a baby, and it is the same person growing, passing through different phases in life. That is continuity.

MB: The note is always passing through time?
K: Yes, music with its notes, its sound and silence, is something continuous. For our own limited understanding, we put limits on this continuity. A mother who is with a child all the time cannot see how her child is growing, but any person who only sees the child every few weeks will say, “Oh, the baby has grown.” The Western musical notation system cannot do justice to sound, it can just point. That’s all. Notation misses how one thing changes into another.

MB: The great Balinese Gamelan master Wayan Lotring once said “In my time, all music was nothing but nuances…”
K: Those subtle things in between go unnoticed because of the fast life, to notice them you have to slow down your own inner speed. Look at pop music, how fast and loud it is. It doesn’t give you the opportunity to think of the finest nuances, and observe how one thing changes into another. It is so imperceptible. But even it is made perceptible, if you can bring your consciousness to focus on that sacred phenomenon of one thing becoming another, to hold control over that is not a simple thing. Things get out of hand!

MB: I heard Pandit Pran Nath say that raga means living souls. What did he mean by that?
K: Pandit Pran Nathji was a Siddha-Nada-Yogi of the highest realization. With his natural gift, and his sadhana of the purity of sound, he was able to offer a living experience of Ragas as divine entities coming and manifesting in their celestial true forms. Every note and nuance had the power and potency to bless the singer and the listener alike with felicity and Ananda. When the singer invokes the spirit of a particular raga, his own spirit gets attuned to a pitch of the raga, and through those sounds, he says to the spirits please come down and manifest. He offers himself completely. When he is singing a raga he is not thinking of anything else, every drop of him is taken possession of, there is no individuality left. Unless that surrender is there, we have not invoked the spirit of the raga.

MB: Can such a spiritual practice of Indian music really take root in a place like North America?
K: Music is a great barrier breaker. Pandit Pran Nathji’s music was spontaneously appreciated and adopted by the spiritual seekers, practitioners following the Sufi path like Pir Vilayat Khan and his followers, and master musicians like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, John Hassell and others. They open-heartedly welcomed this absolutely different tradition of Indian music—and even that of the Kirana Gharana—taking a head long plunge into the Nada Brahma in Yogic spirit. This resulted in a sea-change in their approach, and the emergence of a new musical form which has been called minimalism.
Just as India is dedicated to divinity, America’s ruling spirit is liberty. They really respect freedom – but from that, misunderstandings also come, and you have to pay a price for this. India has paid a price for divinity. All kinds of sadhana are prevalent here, but in the name of sadhana, there is much negativity also. In the same way, in America, there is a ruling spirit of freedom, but it is not fully applied. It will be applied only when just as I say, “The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you and bows down before it,” in the same way, the should say, “The free soul in me respects the free soul in you.” Everyone! If we have perfected one quality, then all the other things will be taken care of. When we have really mastered the idea of liberty, there is no difference between liberty and divinity! And music is doing this work: music is that which will open all hearts, it is the fountain of grace which will pour down over all creation.

Mexico’s Sweet Gold

This was originally written on spec for The Guardian, but not published. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I was sitting in the 20th of November market in Oaxaca, Mexico sipping my post-lunch chocolate con leche when a short, sturdy old man, with skin about the color of my beverage walked up to me. He looked at the foaming bowl in my hand and nodded, approvingly. “In Oaxaca,” he said in a bassy growl, “no coca cola! Only chocolate!” And giving me a hearty punch in the arm, he walked on.

I had came to Mexico in search of chocolate, not gold. When Cortes and the Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century in search of El Dorado, they were surprised to find that the chief coin of the realm in Mocteczuma’s court was not the shiny, precious metal of their dreams, but the beans of the cacao tree. Diaz del Castillo, a soldier in Cortez’s army described how Mocteczuma’s men “brought in cups of fine gold, whith a certain drink made of the cacao itself which they said was effectual to provoke lustfull desires toward women.”
The gourmands of sixteenth century New Spain were less than impressed with the beverage however, and complained about the oily “skumme” which floated on its surface. Nevertheless, they brought the bean back to Europe and by the eighteenth century, chocolate drinking was highly fashionable among the aristocracy of Europe, who sipped the drink out of delicate cups in the mid morning from their beds in Versailles.

Alas, as we know, coffee, tea and the French revolution put an end to all of that, relegating chocolate drinking for the most part to a nocturnal activity for the caffeine-phobic. Meanwhile, the cocoa bean itself was put to other uses, becoming the worldwide number one confection, available in dizzying varieties, from the humblest Cadbury Bar to the dazzling bittersweet creations of the worlds master-chocolatiers in Paris, Milan and Zurich.
On a recent trip to Paris, I had come across a chocolatier in Paris’ chic Saint Germain neighborhood (La Maison du Chocolat), selling exquisite chocolates with Aztec and Mayan symbols carved onto the faces of the chocolate. How piquante it would be, I thought to myself, as I devoured a box with the companion of my choice, if chocolate was still used in Mexico!

A few months later, I was shopping in my local supermarket, when I noticed a that there was a Mexican brand of drinking chocolate lurking in the ethnic foods aisle, called Ibarra. Unlike the Dutch-processed cocoa familiar to most gringos, a brown floury powder from which all the oil or cocoa butter has been removed, this cocoa came in large round coin-like tablets, with the name of the maker emblazoned on them. The cooking method is simple. You scald milk as you would with cocoa powder, break up one of the tablets into small pieces and melt it in the hot milk, drop the mixture in a blender for a minute or two and then serve. Although excessively sweet, I loved the dark, smoky intensity of the drink. Reasoning that if such a product was available in my local supermarket then chocolate drinking must surely be alive and well in Mexico itself, I determined to go on a quest for “el oro dulce”, Mexico’s sweet gold.

On the plane to Mexico City, I was seated next to one of newly elected President Fox’s aides, who nodded approvingly at my half-read copy of Mayan code-breaking anthropologists Sophie and Michael Coe’s True History of Chocolate. Yes, he said, Mexicans are still passionate about chocolate – after all, they invented it. The Coes’ book backs him up. As the plane flew over the vast expanse of Mexico City, he suggested that the best cup of chocolate would be found at the City’s legendary Cafe de Tacuba, an elegant mural and painting covered hostelry near the Zocalo that dates back to 1912.

I enjoyed Tacuba’s elegant, metropolitan chocolate, and the gorgeous environment in which it was served, but I felt that the chocolate was … diplomatic, overly cautious and thus indistinguishable from any other “good” cup of chocolate in the world. So I wandered the city, drinking endless cups of Nescafe like everyone else and looking at the commercial drinking chocolate in the markets – the same chocolate that was for sale in Williamsburg. For succor, I gnawed on a slab of Valrhona cooking chocolate that a chef friend had given me as a parting gift, savoring its bitterness. Where was the real Mexican chocolate?

Driving home from the mariachis at the Plaza Garibaldi one night, a blasting brass band rendition of the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” still echoing through my head, local friends told us about El Moro, a 68 year old chocolateria that stayed open 24 hours a day. Curious, we swung the car around and arrived a little after midnight, to find the large tiled room packed with Mexican families feasting, while the TVs flickered on the walls.

El Moro’s menu is on the wall too. It has only two items: chocolate and churros. Churros, in case you’re wondering, are ten inch long strips of deep fried dough, dusted with sugar – a slender straight donut, perfect for dipping in the chocolate, which comes in four flavors at El Moro: Mexican, Spanish, French and Special. Taking our cue from the Mexican families around us, we ordered a copious spread of cocoa brews, along with a small mountain of churros. The Spanish was an intense, fiercely chocolatey brew, with dark depths in which cinnamon and vanilla flavors rose to the surface, requiring an extra hit of sugar to stand up to the bitterness of the brew. Like many of the other patrons, we requested a jug of hot milk to dilute the brew to the point where it could be drunk rather than eaten with a spoon. The Mexican was similar in style, but sweeter still. I asked the patron, Sr. Francisco Iriarte, why the cocoa was so sweet. He replied that the chocolateria has been in the Iriarte family since the 30s, when they emigrated from Spain, where the custom is to drink it thick and sweet. Personally, I liked the French the best, milkier, not too sweet but packed with cocoa flavor.
Although indisputably a chocolate drinker’s heaven, El Moro’s origins are in Spain – and in metropolitan Mexico City. But I wanted to go back to the time before the Spanish arrived, bringing cattle and therefore milk to mix into the chocolate (a good thing, according to chocolate guru Johnathan Ott, since the milk apparently cancels out the potential carcigenicity of the tannins in the cocoa). So I headed south to Oaxaca.

The chocolate center of Oaxaca is Oaxaca City’s 20 de Noviembre market, where a plethora of market stalls sell the beverage, alongside machetes, marimbas and piles of fried grasshoppers (chapulines). In Oaxaca chocolate is made with your choice of milk or water, and served in a cafe au lait type bowl. The milk drink is familiar to sippers of cocoa worldwide, although somewhat stronger. Great pride and attention however is taken with the foam (or espuma) that tops the chocolate bowl. Although commercial Mexican brands of cocoa like Ibarra advise the use of a blender to make this foam, the traditional way is to use a molinillo, a wooden whisk that looks like a magic wand, which is placed inside the chocolate bowl and spun between the hands to whip up the magic foam. When made with water, as it was in pre-Colombia times, the cocoa flavor comes through much more strongly, and other spices, including chili peppers, are often added to the brew, for balance.

The preferred time for Oaxacans to drink their chocolate is in the morning, at 6 a.m. In a country where the coffee is mostly depressing cups of Nescafe and tea from the tea bush is merely an affectation of the wealthy or of homesick Brits, people get their hit of caffeine from a sturdy cup of morning chocolate, often mixing the chocolate into the corn porridge or atole that is the prefered breakfast dish. While the humble cup of steaming cocoa enjoyed in England and America is relatively low in caffeine, the intensely cocoafied brews enjoyed in Oaxaca are so dense with cacao that you do get a little caffeine hit off them, although theobromine, said to be the source of chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers, is also a mild heart stimulant, giving you a little blood rush something like a sweet, cheap low-dose Viagra.
Ah yes, Viagra. Many people in Mexico told me about chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers in a tone that resembled national pride. Being nothing if not a thorough reporter, determined to bring my finely-honed mind to bear on the problems most afflicting mankind, I was of course curious to learn whether the tales of chocolate’s aphrodisiac qualities were true.

Anthropologists like the Coes are dismissive on this subject, claiming that the tale is nothing more than a colonial fantasy – but theobromine, the most important alkaloid in chocolate is known to act as a mild heart (or blood?) stimulant, and is thus a pretty good simulator of arousal, whether sexual or otherwise. It is of course true that you can buy copious quantities of chocolate anywhere, including your local newsagent, but what with our poor Spanish, the tedium of Mexican TV and the fact that nearly every store for blocks around sold nothing but chocolate, the research team of two in my hotel room found ample time to conduct a thorough study of the issue, and concluded that whatever the anthropologists and psychologists say, chocolate creates a reproducible sensation that for all intents and purposes, is the same as horniness.

Although you can drink chocolate in the Oaxaca markets, the ultimate way Zapotec peasants get their daily dose of theobromine is to buy the raw cocoa beans from the Oaxaca market, toast them, and then grind them in a heated metate or grinding stone. For those people who lack the time (several hours) required to do this but unwilling to embrace the prepackaged products of Nestle or Ibarra, a number of chocolate grinders around the market in Oaxaca will roast and grind cocoa beans for you, in the same way that a good coffee store in El Norte will. These stores exude a powerful smell of cacao that can be sniffed for blocks around.

King of the chocolate barrio is the 50 year old Chocolate Mayordomo, where young Zapotec men and women grind up kilo upon kilo of cocoa for dignified looking Donas and sharp looking young men, in a row of three foot high grinding machines. The cocoa is grinded with canilla (soft stick cinnamon) and almonds, followed by hair-raisingly vast quantities of sugar, producing a familiar looking, but pleasingly bitter (or semisweet) cocoa powder.

Chocolate is in fact a passion pretty much everywhere in Mexico, and traces of its pre-Colombian roots can still be found. A few pounds heavier from all that cocoa butter, but indisputably happy, I still wanted to know the secret of great chocolate. So I asked Mayordomo’s owner,Sr. Flores and his daughter Zoila. They laughed and said “no exist!!!” But on further consideration they concured with Sr. Iriarte of El Moro’s opinion: “pure cacao, careful preparation, and love!”

Badawi: Tomorrow’s Warrior

This was originally published in the January 2002 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

The titles of New York based Raz Mesinai a.k.a. Badawi’s three ROIR CDs Bedouin Sound Clash, Jerusalem Under Fire and the newly issued The Soldier of Midian all take a warrior stance that sounds pretty provocative in the wake of September 11 and it’s aftermath.  The music itself is aggressive too: the first two records filled with righteous nyabhingi drums stalking through digi-dub loops and heavily processed vocals, while Soldier explodes with Middle Eastern percussion, Persian horn samples and dulcimer licks cut up with a major dose of studio tricknology.

Born in Jerusalem in 1973, to American and Israeli parents, Mesinai moved to New York City aged 3, making periodic trips back to Israel.  When he was seven, his godmother took him on a trip to a Palestinian refugee camp on the Lebanese border, where he attended zikr Sufi ceremony led by Sheik Murshid Hassan.  There he first heard the frame drums which triggered a lifelong obsession with rhythm that has so far encompassed Persian, Indian, Yemenite, Moroccan and Afro-Cuban styles.  Time spent with the nomad Bedouin (from which the name “Badawi” comes) in the Sinai desert as a child seems to have infected the young Mesinai with a musical nomad style capable of moving through different terrains without ever losing itself.

Post-punk music from hiphop to hardcore often relies on a rhetoric of violence whose superficiality is quickly revealed in the light of the real thing.  But talking after a weekend that saw a succession of suicide bombings in Jerusalem and renewed threats by Israeli prime minister Sharon against the Palestinians, Mesinai has a more nuanced take on the subject: “War’s something we all have within us as human beings.  The aspect of a warrior changing, a spiritual warrior who for a while killed people and then realizes they can focus in a different direction – that really interests me.  Violence is the easiest way to make a statement, and there’s a lot of lazy people in the world.  But sound can also be violent.  I went to a psychic who told me that in my past life I was a priest who forced everyone to convert to my religion, and if they didn’t I would destroy their cities with guns made of bass!  I was like yeah …. I would do that!  I’m not a completely peaceful person.  I’ve got a lot of hostility to certain ideas and I get mad and I shout.  Music can be that way, and it’s great when violence is expressed in that form.  I was really into hardcore, the more violent the better!”

Mesinai notes that the culture of violence that left the biggest mark on him was that of New York City, where, growing up in the early 1980s, he was also exposed to early hiphop culture: “I was a horrible breakdancer,” he recalls, “but so into it, it was like angels to me: amazingly spiritual, like a trance ceremony.”  Mesinai also wrote grafitti, using amongst others the tag of Scriabin, the great Russian composer.  Turned on to dub through his love of the instrumental side of electro, he formed SubDub with John Ward and became part of the downtown NY scene around DJ Spooky, Olive and Byzar that was given the tag of illbient for a period in the mid nineties – a label he says that was as inevitable as it was meaningless.

Mesinai says he remains interested in dance music, especially now that New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has made dancing illegal in most of the city, but he has also pursued a parallel career in modern composition, culminating in the recently released Before the Law in the Radical Jewish Culture series on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, a set of soundscapes inspired by Czech Jewish modernist writer Franz Kafka.  The tracks combine strings, percussion and piano into moody, short, Zorn-like blocks of sound that capture the mood and pace of Kafka’s writing.  Mesinai, who is also a writer, dates his obsession to telling musical stories without words to time spent studying as a child with New York orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a master storyteller who dramatized his tales with a guitar.  He’s put out several other pieces of modern composition including The Heretic of Ether, a CD which landed him a gig contributing to the soundtrack of horror film Hellraiser 6, along with his own tripped out imaginary darkcore soundtrack The Unspeakable.

Although Mesinai’s work has strong connections to Jewish tradition, he’s emphatic about the universal nature of what he’s doing: “Badawi means “desert dweller”.  I wrote it as “Badawi” because I wanted to keep it universal, open, like William Blake, as opposed to any particular tradition – a friend from Korea says the word means “over water”.”  Perhaps because of the rich complexity of his background, Mesinai has managed to avoid making a “world music” that just pastes together different musical styles in an exotic way.  Noting that Kafka wrote his novel Amerika without ever actually visiting the continent, he views his own work as being based on the universality of sound, and of human experience.  “Badawi is about whatever influences I’ve had in my life.  I want to perceive not even in a musical way that all people are vibrating, making these sounds in this desperate way, all over the world.  I’ve heard a lot of music and grown up around a lot of types of music and started seeing resemblances.  When I DJ, I’ll take a ska track and some Hungarian gypsy music, and discover that they’re both making similar sounds, with rhythms going umchuka umchuka.  And that raises the question: what’s going on there? Rather than forcing Hungarian music to sound like ska, it just does sound like ska and vice versa.”

Technology, used Badawi style, provides a set of experimental tools for opening lines of communication between different sound cultures from around the world, without smoothing them down into one bland “global” style.  Walking across town to his DJing gig, we discuss our mutual enthusiasm for American composer Charles Ives, who Mesinai notes was “sampling” American military marching band tunes and folk song and mixing them up in modernist compositions at the beginning of the twentieth century.  When Mesinai spins, the resulting noise is often similar to Ives’ exuberant, aggressive clashes of styles, but with the emphasis shifted from melody to rhythm: tabla throwdowns melt into Garvey’s Ghost and King Tubby, Moroccan gnawa, Nuyorican percussion workouts and tracks from Soldier of Median, polyrhythms crashing into one another like waves.  It’s an intensely joyful sound, even if it predictably sends East Village cocktail sippers scurrying off to the bar.

Mesinai, who is marrying fellow turntablist/composer Marina Rosenfeld (see Wire 213) on December 30, continues to work with decks.  In the works for 2002 is a CD for Tzadik’s Composers series of string quartet pieces, which includes his String Quartet for 4 Turntables, premiered at Lincoln Center last year with DJ Olive and Toshio Kajiwara.  Mesinai doesn’t subscribe to any traditional dichotomy between technologically and traditionally produced sounds.  “I always start with acoustics.  I believe that energy has to be put into the music, you have to be moving, you have to put energy in through the instruments.  The problem with electronics is that often you’re not putting enough energy through – you sit there more, you type.  Turntables are actually the closest thing to a live instrument, and energy can be thrown through very nicely.”

Even if, as philosopher Paul Virilio says, war is the essence of technology, Mesinai remains optimistic.  “You need to know your enemy, and befriend him,” he says.  “If my enemy is electronics, then I need to befriend it.  That’s what the Badawi project is about.  Machines processing traditions.  When I was a child, my mother used to take me to the Sinai desert and I used to have these Japanese Transformer dolls that can transform into insects, they’re these machine robots.  So I’d sit out there in the desert, and there’d be Bedouins, and I had to entertain myself so I’d take out these Transformers and start up these total battlefields and I think of that when I do a Badawi track, these Transformers duking it out in the desert.”

Raz Mesinai’s Before the Law is available on Tzadik; Badawi’s Soldier of Midian is out on ROIR.

Jon Hassell: There Was No Avant Garde

hassellThis was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I spoke to Jon Hassell by telephone last summer on a bright summer morning, while I was living in the Catskills, surrounded by huskies, cats, lumbering bears, Sufi gurus, and other types of beings. Hassell was very open and direct, curious and human, obviously still very moved by memories of time spent with Pandit Pran Nath. If you listen to his early records, like Vernal Equinox, Possible Musics, Aka-Darbari-Java and Dream Theory in Malaya, you can really hear the fruit of his study with Guruji – it’s all meend, all bending, curving glissandos, morphing shape and pattern. It’s a mistake to interpret Hassell’s work of this period as some kind of post-modern collage of styles. He’s trying to explore or create places where different methods of making music converge with each other, not through the sentiment of some kind of World Music, but experimentally, with the idea of Universal Sound always present to encourage exploration and affirm the possibility of communication. This remains a challenge and a goal worthy of aspiration to today. This interview in Perfect Sound Forever will give you a broader sense of Hassell’s history, while the Jon Hassell Power Spot has discographies, background on Fourth World and more. David Toop’s thoughtful piece on Fourth World from The Wire is also recommended.

JH: When I ran into Pran Nath, it was at a certain point in the development of my musical signature. I was not so well-formed as Terry and La Monte. I always felt I was slightly privileged in that my musical style was still in the process of being formed, and therefore I could weave it into my own particular blend of things whereas with Terry and La Monte, the influence came at a different angle.

MB: Can you trace out what the transition for you was when you studied with Pran Nath?

JH: To me it was an introduction to a microworld of connections. He didn’t normally allow people to record lessons but he did allow me to record one or two and I probably wore out the pause button on my cassette player, just going through and making sure I was picking up every note that was being sung. For me that was a complete revelation. Coming into it from an educated Western point of view listening to Indian music you hear the ornamentation and … from the outside, it’s like a child listening to Indian music trying to imitate it and going (imitates “snake charmer” music) without knowing what’s actually there. It was such a revelation to me, to see that there was this background grid on which these arabesques were being traced – and how it extended the range of possibilities that had been laid out for me in Western musical training.

MB: And you didn’t find that kind of nuaunce in jazz?

JH: What it revealed to me was that jazz was a subset, a “raga family” … because there were a fairly limited set of intervalic variations. But because raga is all about shape-making, it turned me on to seeing African and African-American music, every music through the lens of that shape-making ability. The “calligraphy in air” aspect was such an immense revelation for me. When you hear Pran Nath singing the beginning of a raga and after 15 minutes you realize that he’s only touched on the first three notes, then you see how much is lacking in the western system: you know, here’s the C lily pad, here’s the C sharp, the D lily pad … leaping from pad to pad in that mosaic way, ignoring the connective tissue, the shape making that’s possible between these pitches, which opens up an incredibly vast territory of thinking about music. But, coming in when I did, I didn’t leave anything out, it wasn’t like I had time to become the world’s greatest raga trumpet player and tour the world playing classical raga. I wasn’t 21 when I started studying with him. And that idea, “oh isn’t it quaint how the elephant can dance the ballet,” is somewhat limited … the “trick” of playing something on an instrument that’s never played it before. I mean it’s a cool thing to do but it was out of reach for me … and it just didn’t appeal to me so much. I couldn’t leave behind all the other stuff that I was interested in … Electric Miles Davis … “On The Corner” is the record I always cite …. I had to incorporate all these things I loved into what I did. I tried to open myself to all of it. Certainly the biggest single factor in my development was coming into contact with Pran Nath.

MB: So raga provided the grid for fusing whatever needed to be fused.

JH: It was a window through which I could see other things. The last record I did – Fascinoma – has two Guruji tamburas on it … it’s like a return to my first record Vernal Equinox, on which the raga influence was more prevalent. It’s all one microphone in one church space, no sleight of hand editing of the tape. I also allowed myself to play things I’d never allowed myself to, like Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. Having an appreciation for the shape making ability of raga, led me to finally see things like Johnny Hodges, the alto player with Duke Ellington, who was famous for all these swoops and curves … and a singer like Jimmy Scott, anyone who shaped a music that way … It was a lens through which I started to see things in my own culture from a different angle.

MB: What is lacking in the raga worldview, in terms of envisioning your own music and what you want to do with it? What did you most want to add or incorporate?

JH: A kind of earthiness, an urban quality that you find in the African American approach to things – that synthesis of high and low, that was brought to things by Miles, among others. That was the part that I had grown up on. The things you’re impressed by when you’re in your formative years are going to stay there forever. So it wasn’t likely that I was going to don a white cloth and go off into the mountains and deny whatever it was that made me thrilled when I heard a magic chord progression or some beautiful Brazilian song. Even though raga is definitely sensual. I always talk about the realization that all the other so called classical musics in the world are sensual as well as structural. In Western music it’s often been reduced to something simply structural and the sensual part is often underdeveloped. It’s that combination of structure with sexiness, to use the word that’s lurking behind this talk. Think of Indian classical art with it’s refined sensuality, in which there is no difference between spiritual and sensual. Speaking of it from a Western point of view we always say, well you take a little of this and you add a little of that, but the real story is that sensuality/spirituality is a completely organic thing, there is no separation. In fact, one of the ragas that Pran Nath told me about, the lyric, maybe Lalit, was about girls holding hands, dancing in fields of flowers, they’re like garlands of flowers themselves. This was of course related to the love of God. But that whole ecstasy, from high to low, and the beauty of the girls, the deep spirituality of it, is all clustered together in one concept. The language is not made for speaking about these things. You have to be very careful, otherwise you fall into a trap like wrapping up a sentence with “a concept” – that’s not where it is! It’s pre- and post- “concept” …

MB: Which is what allows it to fuse at many levels, right? Is it hard for you to think of Pran Nath’s singing as sensual?

JH: No, not at all. If you think about the curves, the motion of his hands in the air, he could be describing a Marilyn Monroe shape.

MB: Did he talk much about that?

JH: No. I just knew it was there. He certainly appreciated women and had a healthy libido. Everyone will agree. He had a twinkle in his eye. I always felt that was one of the sine qua nons of music …

MB: That it had that sensuous, incarnate quality …

JH: Yes. And without that it becomes dry and intellectual. In fact I’ve been collecting notes for a book, the title of which is The North and South of You, as in the Cole Porter song. It’s basically about this Western dysfunction between the North and the South, not only globally speaking, but bodily speaking. The equator is the belt line …

MB: It’s a fine idea. Although in the last 30 years, maybe there’s been a kind of global warming that has changed some of this?

JH: Not really. It’s on everybody’s mind of course. The tensions that arise from this imbalance are expressed every place. The public manifestations of the consciousness of it is much greater than before. But it’s still operative. The worldview of Northern people who don’t have a great relationship to the Southern parts of their body is still the one that prevails, and that’s the one that’s causing all the trouble. There’s not proper respect for the “gifts of the South”, shall we say.

MB: I started a book that would be a personal erotic history where I would go through every erotic moment of significance in my life, and use the word “erotic” in the broadest possible way, so that it could describe all kinds of forms of sensuality …

JH: That’s what’s included in this book. The subtitle is “An Erotic Worldview”.

MB: Most of the books that have been written on this subject are pretty disappointing. And very few are written by white men. The few books that are out there that are any good tend to be written by women.

JH: Sounds right.

MB: My feeling is that the “erotic” world dissolves the more you look into it, and enter it: it exists as this powerful heightened Southern world so long as you’re not in it. But once you’re in it, it’s intensity turns into something else, and that’s what interests me the most now.

JH: Maybe you’re speaking of this state of grace that I mentioned in the raga sensibility, in which everything is fused so that it’s impossible to separate. That’s probably an ideal.

MB: Yeah, you’re left with something that could become anything. The erotic is left as a connective tissue.

JH: Well, it’s pretty fundamental. Everything that happens comes from that connection. The erotic experience of sliding down the uterine canal … that’s a fairly good hint as to what we consider fundamental. I view it as a fact of animals who have become so abstract that they’ve lost contact with their animal origins and therefore separate everything into “us” and “them”. Some humans have stayed closer to that, and are … quite “amusing” to northern people who go on vacation to the South. But their world view is not respected enough to be seen with the same weight as the classical Northern view.

MB: I guess we should return to Pandit Pran Nath.

JH: Oh, I don’t think we’ve ever departed (laughter).


MB: When and where did you study with Pran Nath?

JH: I’d just come from studying with Stockhausen for 2 years in Germany and I was new to this whole minimal idea. I was in Buffalo with Terry and played on In C … It must have been ’73, ’74 that I actually moved to New York, and started playing with La Monte – that’s when I came into this sphere, being around him and playing in the Dream House, listening to those overtones and intervals magically connecting, often on some hashish cocktail.

MB: Just from seeing a video of Pran Nath, I got a strong smoker’s vibe …

JH: Not him. The Indian thing is … bhang grows alongside the road there. When you’re studying and living in the forest, and it’s music music music all day, the first thing you touch when you wake up in the morning is the chillum. Those things you see in those classical Indian paintings … ladu, little balls of bhang and almond paste … To write a history of music without that concept of ecstasy, of intoxication, is to write a history of the world without noting that it didn’t take place in the glare of electric light.

MB: And it’s a history of embodiment, of relationships with nature, connections with the divine through nature, through material processes.

JH: Right.

MB: But Pran Nath was not particularly a hashishin.

JH: Not really, that was more the Dream House. Doing those long sessions and tuning up those intervals. I’ll never forget that.

MB: One of the things that’s said about hashish is that it allows a micro-perception of intervals …

JH: I’d say microworlds rather than microintervals. La Monte talks about this … listening in the present tense. And also vertical listening. As opposed to listening to a line unfold in time, you’re presented with a timbre and you scan the timbre up and down vertically and listen to little areas. I did a piece called Solid State while I was in residence at the at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, at SUNY Buffalo, which can be seen as an attempt to bring into the audible range that overtone area – bring it into a more fundamental range, then carve away at it with sequential filtering. That was all coming out of my experience with the Dream House and Terry Riley – we did his In C there. I used to present it as a sound sculpture in museum spaces. It was working with this idea of a block of sound, but I added a kinetic energy to it through sequential filtering. The concept was like beginning with a piece of paper that was all black with pencil lead and then making shapes on it by erasing.

MB: So you were mixing this live?

JH: Yes. Although the fundamental piece was done on 2 track tape. We did it at the planetarium in Amsterdam a few years ago, which turned out to be the perfect place for it!

MB: So when did you actually formally study with Pran Nath?

JH: There was an intense period of study when we were both in New York in 1973, 4. I began studying just by singing, and shortly after I started playing trumpet. And I had to forget everything I knew about playing and really learn to play the mouthpiece instead of the trumpet. The trumpet is a glorified bugle. It’s made to touch wide intervals until you get to the upper partials … by the way, some people think that’s the theory behind those high Brandenberg Concerto trumpet parts… I had to find a way to make the meend – which I tried to do by trying to use the lips as a secondary voice, as if transferring the vibration point from the vocal fold to the lips and thinking of it as a conch sound, blowing primitively into it and making the pitches with just the lips and the resonating chamber. I had to blow across the normal overtone “notches” and, as a result, the sound became quite fuzzy and vocal. That was a pleasant side effect of attempting to make the meend happen.

MB: Were you involved in other musical projects while you were studying with Pran Nath?

JH: No. I left for California in 1975 … I went through a lot of personal stuff … which was all part of the birth of what I’ve called “Fourth World”. I was just practicing with my raga lessons and my pause button. I lived in a little place in Malibu near the ocean and I’d go up into the hills and practice and try to make those curves. I basically studied “Tilang” for two years or more … and just the alap … I never really got beyond it …

MB: Was “Tilang” a raga that Pran Nath particularly taught?

JH: It was certainly special between him and me. In India, that’s what I was working on. Whenever it would come on the radio and he started to sing a bit of it outside of a lesson, I knew he was still teaching me.

MB: How many times did you go to India?

JH: Just once.

MB: Any particular memories?

JH: Just the ecstasy of being there in the temple. I think La Monte and Marian were staying in the temple, my then girlfriend DeFracia and I were staying in a hotel down the road, and we’d come to the temple early in the morning, and Swamiji (Narayan), Guruji’s spiritual guru, he was there. I remember playing on the roof for him. He came up and sat and listened to me, with these brilliant eyes shining and smiling, seeing what I was doing on the trumpet. We would go to the market, buy two ladu … it made the day go like … water! I was often on ladu, and listening to the children sing, the arti bells clapping, the swallows overhead, the muezzin singing from the minaret nearby, I mean it was total ecstasy, it was so beautiful.

MB: Sounds like a fourth world foundational experience right there.

JH: Totally. Totally.

MB: What did people there think of you playing the trumpet?

JH: They just accepted it. There was even a fabled trumpet player spoken of there … I mean they use clarinet in those wedding bands. It wasn’t like oh my god you can’t do this …

MB: But most people studied singing with him …

JH: First I started vocal … but then I started transferring it to trumpet.

MB: Did he ask you to do that?

JH: No. There was a festival that we did in Rome in the early 1970s. La Monte was doing a Dream House, Guruji was singing too, and I was warming up in the space one day, playing some pattern, and Guruji picked it up and started singing it and running rings around it and I thought, why am I not studying with this man? I’d seen him perform for months or maybe a year before I decided to study.

MB: Did you formally become a disciple?

JH: Not formally. I was always on the outside a little bit. I profited from that in some way. I think he respected where I was and respected the slight distancing. Too close to the guru you burn up, too far away you’re too cold. I always felt there was a nice blend of master, pupil and friend.
MB: That’s the sense I have from almost everyone I’ve talked to …

JH: Yeah. Terry and I when we see each other, we think about how he would laugh. Oh ho ho. just to say that … He’d come across a beautiful thing or a beautiful girl or a beautiful vista. And he’d say “oh ho ho!” in a special way. It was more beautiful than I can … as you can tell I’m starting to mist up over here!


M: My feeling is that all the action is in that middle space where things are mixing and fusing. Hungry Ghost will be devoted to this issue of fusion, tradition and experiment in contemporary culture.

JH: Find another word for fusion! That rings a bell and Pavlov’s dog comes out, dripping.

MB: You start using words like matrices …

JH: (laughing) No, don’t do that either! I try to cultivate a very direct, extemporaneous manner … try to say things directly without going into art critic speak. Try to say the thing in the most direct way, avoiding words that push people’s buttons and cause them to slam the door shut as they read.

MB: Yeah, part of Hungry Ghost is about discussing spirituality and the sacred in modern culture, and those are two more words that you can’t really use or wouldn’t want to use. So the whole venture is about inventing a space or vocabulary for things that we’re unable to talk about without the associations being so heavy that people are turned off or think they already know what’s gonna be said.

JH: Wordism is what I call it. Here’s something I wrote about it: “the words are all on a transparent film. the experiences to which they refer are taking place seamlessly behind the film overlay. the words are like digital samples of a continuous analog experience. if you focus on the word-film, the experience becomes a blur, the way that focusing on an insect on your car windshield prevents you from seeing the road in the distance clearly. Preverbal experience of primitive people takes place entirely behind the overlay or rather without it. Early verbal cultures see the word and the thing which it names in somewhat equal focus, connected by an invisible membrane. Later verbal cultures come to see only the verbal overlay, with a vague blur of experience behind. As Homo sapiens lives ever more in the realm of symbols the membrane connecting thing and symbol atrophies. Discourse becomes a same-symbol with-different-underlying-meanings/same-meaning-with-different-underlying-symbols quicksand.”

MB: That was part of what my book about drugs was about. I wanted to reconfigure the idea of both drugs and literature, since they’re both actually types of embodied experience. The particular ways in which modern people relate to the notion of embodiment and how they think culture relates to that idea, completely determined the fate of drugs and literature in our world. There’s no such thing as “drugs”, there’s just a set of attitudes and laws, in which these things appear which we call drugs because they set off a certain set of alarms, desires, fears …

JH: Exactly. “Intoxication” is a word I use to jump over “drugs”. And to say that intoxication is the fourth drive, along with sex, hunger and thirst. Intoxication is essential as any of those. It’s a primal need, which expresses itself in various ways, sanctioned or not.

MB: To what degree did your thinking about preverbal culture evolve through studying with Pran Nath?

JH: Well, as far as the fundamental root is concerned, it’s smack dab in the center. The collision of my western training with this raga culture, which is a complete embodiment of sensuality and structure … like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, where the game was a combination of all science, art all in one thing. If anything came close to that it was raga. And who knows that art? Who would have the knowledge to understand how many things converge in that, being able to summon up the memory of this particular calligraphic event or situation. See the language breaks down into scientific stuff. Raga is like this smoke in the air which presents the listener with the feeling of being in a dream which imparts knowledge all at once. It reminds me of Terence McKenna’s saying that drugs are chemical gifts of the gods … it’s almost like a printed circuit, or an operating system that you may as well consider sacred … the chemical result of a plant that allows your brain to receive a certain kind of knowledge all in one swoop.

MB: And that raga is another way of addressing that circuit … and that concern with mood in the raga is that preverbal experience of knowledge.

JH: Right, all imprinted in the person who has opened their receptors enough to have the whole picture come in.

MB: To what degree do you feel that Pran Nath knew what he was doing?

JH: Well, he wouldn’t be able to talk about it as I am now. Even though he could say it in his own way. But being of one world and being acquainted with others, it’s become quite important to me and I’ve focused a lot on trying to say things like this in a language that might be understood by other people.

MB: Did he comment on your music?

JH: Actually, yes. “Graduation Day” for what I was doing was when I played him a track off Possible Musics called “Charm” in which I’m doing a lot of meend, a lot of shape making. It’s over a kind of tambura. I felt that everything I did was a way of transforming the basic structure of the raga situation: there’s a solo in front, there’s a background grid, the tambura, and I just said OK, let’s smear this image up a bit, let’s not use the traditional way, let’s do it another way, try this one, try that one, that’s where it all began, and you extrapolate from there … just like a painter would, start with a set of assumptions, limitations etc and paint your way out of them, and back into them, and then out of them again …

MB: And you played “Charm” to Pran Nath?

JH: Right. He said “This is good”. So that was a big moment for me. That he could actually see how something could be taken and how his art could be absorbed and translated in another way. In the same way that raga itself has always depended on personalities – maybe the variations between singers in a tradition is much more subtle – but still it all had to do with personalities, saying “I like the way this sounds, this makes me cry” … that must have been a part of …

MB: But this was about more than personalities. He must have been aware that his closest American students were musicians who were involved in a very different kind of music. And yet he himself seems so traditional. Did he have aspirations for his music?

JH: No, I don’t think so. I think he just did what he did. And was certainly expansive enough to understand how things grow and don’t stay static. But as for his own work, in the same way that we’ve said that sensuality and structure, or spirituality and sexuality, can be bound together, that they’re not separable, you could also say that for him forward and backward were also the same. There was no avant-garde. Except that probably while we were lying around listening to his music, as all sensitive musicians would, he probably understood what things we were really getting off on. and “played to the crowd” I hope. And if you’re not “playing to the crowd”, what are you doing?

MB: Do you think he spelled an end to minimalism? Basically after meeting him everyone went off and did something else.

JH: It just opened a wider panorama of possibilities. To a certain extent it took some of the wind out of the sails of a particular way of thinking about things. In other words, there was something better to do than that. My definition of minimalism is keeping one thing constant while other things move, and that generalized notion could be applied in many ways, including raga.

Charlemagne Palestine: Searching for the Golden Sound

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

bethdavidsinging 2I spoke to Charlemagne Palestine by telephone, he in Belgium, in New York in the summer of 2001, after his return from a trip to Iceland. Palestine, as he himself says, met Pandit Pran Nath outside of the circle of musicians and composers associated with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, although his work is animated by a similar interest in minimalist strategies for composition and improvisation, and a concern with the transcendental qualities of sound. If you don’t know Palestine’s work, his interview with Brian Duguid should set you straight. For myself, I’ve never witnessed any of Palestine’s legendary live performances, but I love the CDs of Strumming Music, Schlingen Blangen and Karenina, each of which overflows with euphoric intensity. In conversation, Palestine’s voice has an extraordinary musical quality, full of spaces, half finished phrases that convey his meaning musically and poetically, always feeling their way beyond the words.

MB: How did you first meet Pran Nath?
CP: It was at the end of the sixties … I was living on the upper west side of Manhattan in a neighborhood that was known for jazz musicians. A neighbor of mine told me that he’d just heard this incredible singer, and he invited me to go hear him. I’d already sung Jewish sacred music as a child, and was already excited by all kinds of music. So I went, and I heard Pran Nath sing, and he was great. He was looking for students, as where he was staying was only 7 or 8 blocks from where I was living on the upper west side, he was living on 95th Street with two disciples of Baba Ram Dass. So I started to work with him. Immediately it went very easy, since I came from a background of Jewish sacred music, especially his kind of chanting, my voice adapted very well. Within a few weeks, people sometimes mistook me for him. I was a young kid. I mean I was imitating the timbre of his voice, not that I was a great Indian singer. At the beginning, when you learned with him in those days, he tried to help you find the sa. Like the om, the do in Western music. He would do amazing variations on this [sings sa in very PPN way], and then you’d learn the scales. I’d already learnt that in music school … I’d been searching for a sacred sound in Jewish music so it came very easily to me. I was about 20 years old …
I studied with him for a few months, and he taught me how to use the tambura, and we’d sing sa and the different notes. He asked me if I wouldn’t be his disciple, which meant spending much much time with him. And at my age, it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. So at a certain moment I stopped working with him. But for all the following years, because sometimes I had political musical problems with the other generation, Pran Nath always included me in every situation where I was there. He always waved to me – though I never sang to him, and it was clear why, because the idea of giving a commitment and finally the amazing commitment that La Monte, Marian and Terry gave was something I could never imagine giving another person. But this link came because of the sounds themselves and my tradition, I started as a singer, not a keyboard player or composer. I started in music as a singer. And my relationship with synagogue singing. And this put us on a level of very powerful musical communication, which was great. I know he was disappointed, and somewhere, so was I, but even now … some people say my music is very meditative or centering … but all the guruisms and gurujiisms … that kind of giving your life to another culture like India … though I had many dear friends who were great musicians, and we can even say holy men from India, from Africa … I loved all that stuff … But as my culture had disintegrated as a tribal culture, a Jewish New Yorker in the late sixties is not in a Hasidic community, I was already too worldly, too restless to want to return to a foreign culture. But he never excluded me. When there were problems and because I could be a very disruptive person when I felt cornered, he always took my side by including me in the family even though I was the prodigal son who never finally did spend those kinds of years which his technique and his position and Indian music and dance demand. It demands daily commitment. It’s not something you can do just like that.

MB: What do you think you learnt from him?
CP: I’d put it more sociologically. There was a great division in my childhood between Oriental or I should say Jewish Oriental sacred music, classical music, jazz, rock … everything was separated. What he brought by coming to America and by inspiring a bunch of people like Jon Hassell and so on … all of a sudden you have a whole bunch of guys, I mean La Monte is a Mormon, Terry Riley’s an Irish west coaster, I’m a Jewish New Yorker … at that time we were very conscious of being a very un-tribal culture, meaning that we were all searching for a kind of identity … all was possible but all our family and tribal units our own born tribal units had disintegrated into an American pablum, and so it was hard to say who you were if you were American. What his being there helped me to feel was that I was continuing the chant of the synagogue, and along with his chant …we were all part of some larger force that was coming of age, that would then create a kind of world … even now the audience of young people who listen to my music and get it astounds me … in those days there were so few people who got it. And people were so fragmented … you were either in this kind of world or that kind of world … so his being there and attracting so many people and his coming from such an ancient culture … was a very powerful social force, bringing this ancient tribal tradition, which musicians like us had lost touch with, certainly white musicians.

MB: What about this tradition was important that it should manifest in the west?
CP: Ooof. It even happened with Merce Cunningham or John Cage …. at a certain moment, we were given all the freedom to do what we want. I went to conservatory, and there were people I met, and even now there are people who spend their lives from the time they’re 7, 12 hours a day developing a musical tradition – piano, voice … it’s a paternal or maternalistic system … ballerinas for instance … so it’s not like you wake up in the morning and you’re the king of your own world and you invent your own music. It’s something that came out of the western [classical?] idea … but at a certain moment you wake up in the morning and you say: well what the hell do I want to do?? That system that came from an ancient place where there’s already this hierarchy where you don’t have to think about what to do for years and years, maybe for 30 years you won’t have to think about what to do because there’s someone above you who will show you, who will mold you, who will inspire and guide you. And that aspect of guruisms that I used to criticize I understand because there were many very interesting and intelligent people who felt that need. That was one of the things that drugs tried to … that’s why someone like Richard Alpert becomes Baba Ram Dass … he too was looking for another force bigger than himself to show him some great magic in the world that he could no longer do by himself. That’s maybe what psychedelia was about. That you took some kind of another force, whether it was a human being or a drug which … you were no longer the top of your heap … you were more like a leaf in the wind where somebody else took care of the power structure. And that I think was somehow very important in those times. Especially … for a lot of white people … although I’m Jewish I lived in a white society … but because I was born in a culture that’s not exactly white through and through, so I had this ancient link … maybe you have this still in Ireland … but in America we’ve lost that. Maybe in the UK you still go to a place and ancientness is still there. In Iceland, they arrived in 900 AD, but when I watch them and see what they do … 900 is not such a long time ago. That comes out of the simplicity of a tribal culture. Iceland is a modern culture, but it’s a very tribal culture.

MB: And it’s to do with discipline … discipline produces a kind of authentic experience?
CP: … And it lets you know that carrying on a tradition is OK. That you don’t have to be an iconoclast every day, you don’t have to destroy what was there yesterday. I was brought up with that notion of genius: that you do something that nobody else did and you try not even to do what you did after awhile otherwise you’re already finished. Which is the contrary of the oriental tradition where you make more and more perfect the tradition which goes from generation to generation … and certainly he was the incarnation in this time of a very ancient tradition. So he was him, but he was also an entire culture.

MB: Are there particular works of yours, where you do see the resonance of your studies with Pran Nath?
CP: Well, Karenina is an easy one. That came out just after his death. Schlingen-Blangen is a kind of sa piece. It’s not sung, it’s sung by an enormous instrument, but it’s a way of humming in space … but in a funny way my teacher Sebastian Engelberg, Austrian Jew in the opera tradition, died quite a few years before, that’s why he became my teacher … he was looking for the golden sound. The whole concept for me of the golden sound was the sa of Pandit Pran Nath.

MB: The sound that contains all the possibilities of sound?
CP: Yeah – and the search for this perfect sound. And the pure voice without anything else is the most intimate and expressive sound that a being can make. If its an animal, their screech … the bark of a dog … for me there’s nothing more intimate, and the essence of the animal or the being is the voice. Even though I did many things that were not the voice. But I started with the voice. And he was the voice.

MB: But even your non-vocal drone pieces …
CP: Yeah I see them as taking that ideal and putting it in another context. In my sense I don’t know what that perfection is. Finally I do it in a very sort of Jewish way … searching, neurotic, schizophrenic, frenetic, sometimes calm sometimes chaotic, searching for this perfection … a way that’s kind of Kabballic … something unattainable … it’s not like a beautiful smiling Buddha on a mountaintop somewhere. Meaning, for somebody for me.

MB: It’s more of a struggle …
CP: Exactly. And he was a struggling man. He loved his whisky …

MB: I heard he had a taste for Chivas Regal …
CP: As did my father. As do I! (laughs) Sometimes to very cataclysmic extremes. On that level I also touched with him. Though we didn’t discuss it.

MB: Did you have a sense of what the struggle was about?
CP: A sense of what the struggle was about … well … life is a struggle! Certainly when you’re in a tradition like that, with a continuity, with that as a center, a pole to secure yourself from the winds that can throw you from side to side … and the creative process … someone like him was not just a good virtuoso singer … because also in India you find people like the Dagar Brothers who are fantastic virtuosos. And maybe also because he also was out of his culture too he rarely went home, he preferred to be in the west. As we were tormented by being a lost culture looking for our roots, he was tormented, being from a culture with enormous roots that he could no longer socially live in as a normal member of. He had a lot of ghosts and angst that in traditional Indian society were not looked well upon. But he wasn’t the only one … I met others … and you see it with jazz musicians too … they gave all their lives to their music, and their personal lives were less ecstatic than the sounds they made and they suffered from all these questions and problems dealing with that, as many artists do.

MB: Right. You see it in a lot of the spiritual teachers who came from wherever they came to the west in the sixties and seventies too. Moving to the west and taking on that sort of rootlessness was something very painful.
CP: It makes me think … the difference between drinking in a culture and drinking like that is that you’re alone. In Greece, even in French families, there are thirty of you and you’re drinking for a festale, a marriage. You’re all together – it’s not lonely. But then you come to another culture, and it becomes a lonely kind of task, and that creates another kind of alcohol.

MB: It’s said that Jewish people are less susceptible to alcoholism because they tend to be raised in families where alcohol is used in a social context, and it’s much more integrated into their lives.
CP: In my family that was the epoch when my father drank with his brothers and cousins and his Chivas Regal was a social drink. I drank with him at the table for shabas, we drank together. But when I came of age, that community no longer existed. My cousins had moved, they had become Americans and there was no longer this community. But the alcohol stayed! (laughs) It’s funny, you called me at the hour when I have my aperitif – I’m drinking my Johnny Walker. My wife knows it’s like a sacred hour of the day for me. When I start my first whisky. I used to drink sometimes at any time of day. Now, after six … so if there’s anything I need to do that needs a certain precision or objectivity … but then I try to drink pleasantly, to enjoy it … and in these years I’ve come to enjoy alcohol.

MB: Were there specific pieces of advice that he gave you?
CP: No. We never spoke like that. It was always in the sound. He always had me sing. He just looked in my eyes … for me he came from a tradition in sound that was the closest to anything that I could have imagined … I sang with some of the great singers in Jewish tradition, they’re the equivalent of Pran Nath for the Jewish faith. They’re not rabbis, though they can also be rabbis … they studied, they learned the books and became learned men, but they were the men that sang to God, and for the people in all the traditional rituals. And I studied with several of them – with them, because often a young boy would do duets with them, never a girl … and even with them our relationship was totally sound. So we did very little talking except to say, you’re out of tune duh duh duh … and it was through the sound that we communicated … and with him also that was true. I sang so easily his style. That’s why people thought I sounded like him, because I could imitate the sound. Not him of course, but the sound. The sound was easy for me.

MB: Were there works where you were formally concerned with raga like structures?
CP: No. I’ve never been good at … in western music, in eastern music, I’ve always been kind of a poetic deadhead … I’ve never been good at the mathematics. I could just sort of get it! I was in the conservatory for five years to keep out of the Vietnam war … I learned certain techniques, but I never used them. They were just something I learned because they exist. Interesting to analyze. But I always learned everything by ear. I loved the sound of those words. Like in Karenina I invent ragas and words that could mean something … I always have the dream that some day someone will listen to them and know exactly what they mean because it’s their language. Like when I was in Iceland, they have such a special language and everyone understands because they speak the language, but when you’re a foreigner, it just sounds like you’re muttering and sputtering all these strange sounds and that I love! (laughs) That’s the level I love, that mysterious sputtering and juttering in a language. That’s what it was like for me to sing with him. Like re ne na … (sings)

MB: You have that solemn quality in your voice that he has …
CP: I had it in five minutes. As soon as I met him, he looked at me with those eyes, those sad eyes and his teeth, one tooth a little bit off, when he opened his mouth it wasn’t perfectly symmetrical, it was a little bit off and I knew exactly how he felt because that’s how we sing in Hebrew singing … you cry and you do these lamentations. It just was so easy. It touched something very ancient. About the man … on the planet … blah blah blah!

MB: When you were working with different ethnic musics, did you come to feel that there were particular ways of doing it or ways to avoid or did you just go on your nerve?
CP: Sometimes I feel like I’ve been too floating … a whirlpool of wind and water … but I’ve never been able to decide those kind of questions. They seem to me something very untouchable. Some deep part of me feels they shouldn’t be touched. And then there are other people who actually do set up these systems and they work. Even for ballet, they’re magic when they work, yet they come from a lot of repression and discipline and ego battling. But I’ve never been able to … so I’ve always kept outside. And that’s what keeps me the prodigal son. Even in this story, I’m on the outside. I use what I use and I do what I do. I’m sort of an uncle, I’m not a father. I’m just my own asshole … going through my day. I try to be the best possible asshole I can be!
Photo: Palestine at the Beth David Cemetary in Long Island, NY in 1996. Photo by Irene Nordkamp.

Is There Music After 091101?

This was originally published in the November 2001 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

In a recent seminar in New York, post 091101, French philosopher Jacques Derrida noted a link between music and forgiveness. He described an exchange between philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, who has written passionately of the impossibility of forgiving the Germans for the Holocaust, and a young German, who wrote an eloquent, unevasive response to Jankelevitch, describing his own feelings of guilt regarding an event that occurred before he was even born, and inviting him to visit him in Germany. Jankélévitch, who is a music lover, turned down the invitation to visit, even though the young German assured him that he would not play no German music, but only the French Debussy. Moved by the young man’s letter however, Jankelevitch, invited him to visit him in Paris, where they would “sit down together at the piano.”
No doubt, it’s premature to talk of forgiveness right now. 091101 was an unspeakable event – as I write, the bodies of those trapped in those planes and the WTC towers remain unburied, just a few miles away from me. Silence is not a word that comes to mind when one speaks of New York City – but at least for the first few days after the event, the city was almost silent. Nothing however draws pundits and speech as much as the very impossibility of speaking. And music also steps into this void of the unspeakable. But not unambiguously, as the above example in which Jankélévitch assumes that he has the power to forgive or not, suggests. One might also think of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s playing of a Mendelsohn violin piece, to show his “respect” for the Jewish people he has “insulted”. Or the kitsch of Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory”, Michael Jackson’s “Black and White.” Can music act as the true expression of a forgiveness that must go beyond words – or is it a substitution for it, a convenient sleight of hand?
One of my teachers, Avital Ronell, began her first post 091101 class by ringing a bell. Another began by invoking the memory of a street musician heard on the way to school that day, belting out a tune on an old organ. At the strange shrines that sprang up spontaneously all over lower Manhattan in the days after 091101, there were the predictable post-Lennon folk singers, but also samba groups, Tibetan chants, jazz.
For myself, most of my records and CDs sit in the exact same place they were on the night of 091001. One symptom of trauma is a visceral distaste for everything that one was doing at the moment of shock. I’m sensitive to sounds, although, since I watched 091101 from my roof in Williamsburg, far enough away to see events unfold without hearing the sound, perhaps my ears are in better shape than my eyes. When I see an aircraft, I have doubts as to what it is that I am seeing: a vehicle or a bomb.
For the first weeks after 091101, the only music I was able to listen to was Indian ragas, which, with their sustained focus on a particular emotional mood, slowly penetrate consciousness until everything else falls away. And I thought about raga master Pandit Pran Nath, born a Hindu in what is now Pakistan, member of a Muslim gharana in India – precisely the kind of liminal figure we need right now, able to move between and reconcile worlds that are tragically polarized, through devotion to perfect sound.
To my surprise though, in the last week or so, I’ve found myself listening repeatedly to the queasy cold-war music of my youth: Bowie’s Low, early Pere Ubu, This Heat – avant-rock from the late-1970s that was both parasitic on, and sought to transform the prevailing culture of political polarization. Music that worked with fear, that looked for lines of flight. Does it sound gripping right now because of this, or is it that I’m going through a protective movement of regression, to “simpler” times?

Henry Flynt: American Gothic

This was originally published in the October 2001 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“Is it OK to talk about what we think about this civilization?” asks 61 year old hillbilly minimalist fiddler and philosopher Henry Flynt, in his broad southern accent, as we drink coffee in a restaurant in New York’s Soho, where he lives. “It’s the aftermath of a wreck. It’s just in a condition of destruction. I’m trying to think of a more polite word than putrefaction. Everything that is organic is dead and decomposing, and everything that’s not organic is twisted and fused.”
For forty years, to almost complete indifference, Flynt has waged his own multi-front struggle against this culture, a struggle which has encompassed everything from music, dance and painting, to “concept art”, a term which he coined in 1961, a broad range of philosophical treatises on everything from mathematics, to psychedelics, to utopian politics, and even an envisioned 1975 commune called the Genius Liberation Project.
After decades of gathering dust, some of his key musical works are finally available. A 2 CD set New American Ethnic Music Volume 1, issued earlier this year by Baltimore musician and impresario John Berndt on his Recorded Records, collects two of the extraordinary drone and violin HESE (Hallucinogenic Ecstatic Sound Environment) pieces he developed with, Swedish composer, musician and mathematician, Catherine Christer Hennix in the late 1970s. Then there’s the recent Ampersand release Graduation, a set of avant-country recordings from the late-1970s, in which he places country on an infinite plateau that constantly surprises, while remaining as American as a cross-country road trip. Awaiting release are unique overdubbed violin pieces from the 1960s, like “Hoedown”, and recordings of his blazing cosmic rockabilly and freeform psychedelic guitar and drum collaborations with Hennix under the name Dharma Warriors, made in the years before Flynt quit making music in 1984.
Asked whether he’s a recluse, Flynt responds: “not at all. In fact, how strange. I’ve been screaming for attention for 40 years. I have a long list of attempts to become a public figure. It just keeps failing over and over!”
A self-described nerd, Flynt grew up studying classical violin in North Carolina in the 1950s, surrounded by yet oblivious to the southern “ethnic” cultures of bluegrass, country and blues. He studied mathematics at Harvard, with a view to pursuing philosophy, while continuing his studies of New Music. A meeting with La Monte Young in New York in 1960 provided the blueprint for Flynt’s future musical direction. Young was at that time simultaneously pursuing his work in modern composition while playing ferocious saxophone and gospel based piano pieces. Inspired by Young and exposure to Indian classical music, Coltrane and the country blues, as well as his growing commitment to leftist politics (Flynt was a member of a Marxist group in the mid-sixties, and has continued to pursue a radical, utopian politics in his philosophical works), he began producing solo fiddle pieces that embody his revolt against the clinical modernism of Cage and Stockhausen (against whom he demonstrated in 1964 with fellow Harvard student Tony Conrad), and his allegiance to what he calls “new American Ethnic music.” This was the music of the south of his childhood whose traditions he reshaped according to his own vision of an ecstatic, trance-inducing sound, appropriating techniques from contemporary composition, to add to the armory of ethnic music.
Flynt is at pains to differentiate his music from the superficial borrowings of ethnic music that are pervasive in modern music: “You can’t just say well now I’m going to go to the dimestore, get some hillbilly software and throw some hillbilly into my minimalist modern music. For me that’s not what it’s about. Since it’s a different musical language, you have to acquire some chops! Just saying you’re a composer and a musician and producing a violin and a piece of paper doesn’t count for anything in that world of banjo pickers and fiddlers. What the pedal steel player is doing on my CD is sophisticated stuff!”
Setting aside his own formidable fiddling skills, Flynt acknowledges that finding other musicians with the requisite chops who were willing to follow his instructions was never easy though. For the 1975 Graduation sessions, Flynt recalls that he had to trick the musicians into doing what he wanted: “It was always a fluke. You’d bring them into this situation, almost blind, throw them into these open forms and ask them to start flying. What usually happened was that they managed to do it once. Afterwards, they shrugged their shoulders and walked away. One of them said that he had a great job lined up playing in a ski resort near Denver.”
Flynt is aware of the paradox that his music embodies: that of trying to play ethnic music for a community that is for the most part uninterested in his attempts to elevate or enrich it. He in turn says “I have no interest in entering their world and becoming a commercial musicians with their three minute songs. I’ve taken their music and ripped it apart at the seams to expand it, make it work in a different way.”
Flynt has also had his brushes with the rock world. In the mid-sixties, he took guitar lessons from Lou Reed and sat in on violin for John Cale with the Velvet Underground for four nights in 1966, during the Exploding Plastic Inevitable period. “I enjoyed the experience, but I was kind of out of place. We would get into long chaotic pieces, but Reed stopped me because my sound started getting too hillbilly. He actually punched me to get me to stop.”
Through the late sixties, he pursued an electric guitar driven, political rock format, while in January 1975, he formed Novabilly, a rock’n’roll band, who performed spirited versions of the Communist Internationale along with their own songs – an exhilarating fusion of rockabilly riffing, free jazz and hillbilly fiddling. He recalls trying to get gigs at the downtown New York punk mecca CBGB, whose initials stand for Country, Blue Grass and Blues. “Because of Graduation, I thought that if anybody had a right to play there I did, I mean those initials describe exactly what I do!” But the club thought otherwise and blew him off. Six months later, punk hit town and his musicians jumped ship, leaving him with a lasting suspicion of a “punk value system” which he considers pervasive.
In love with music, like Coltrane, Young or his teacher Pandit Pran Nath, which “aspires to a beauty which is ecstatic and perpetual”, Flynt dismisses “alternative culture” as for the most part “a mystique of self-disintegration, hollowness and dishonesty, coming forth from this inchoate rage at the so-called establishment. And this self-disintegration, in most cases is also a hoax, since most of these people, like Marilyn Manson or Smashing Pumpkins, are well organized hustlers. It’s very rare that someone like GG Allin or Cobain lives out the myth by actually destroying themselves. You do have the occasional suicide or overdose, but what is more normal is for them to become enormously wealthy, like Eminem! It’s the youth rebellion industry. This mystique of bottomless emptiness is clearly not real. I mean someone who actually was all those things would just melt in their tracks if they were infinitely hollow, alienated. It as if they want to keep falling through the rotten floors of illusion forever. They affirm that as a state!”
New American Ethnic Music is out on Recorded; Graduation and Other Ceremonies is on Ampersand. Flynt’s philosophical writings can be found at www.henryflynt.org.

09:16:01 NYC

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

hgusquareTook a long walk downtown with a friend after an amazing dinner at Tomoe Sushi, my favorite sushi joint, which is at Thompson and Houston, quite close to Ground Zero. Kept flickering back and forth between sensual pleasures of eating the fish there, and feelings of guilt at how obscene it was to be enjoying anything in that charnel ground atmosphere.

We walked down to Canal Street, through the stores selling their $300 shoes. At Canal and Sixth, there were little candle lit rituals going on in the square there, as there had been, on a much vaster scale, in Union Square earlier that evening. I was moved by the intensity of the mourning … also struck by its vagueness. In Union Square, nationalist symbols and religious ones, American flags, statues, even the architecture of the park were being used in a frantic search for meaning. There was paper and cloth on the floor and people were writing things on it – statements of mourning, peace, anger, hiphop proclamations of war like “Yo Bush! Regulate!” The green spaces of the park were candlelit too.I liked the Canal Street area of mourning best — there were people from everywhere — Chinese, African-American, Caucasian, Asian … everyone had cameras and was snapping away, but everyone was also serious, making sure the candles stayed on fire. After spending much of the year in India, New York suddenly felt very similar to an Indian city. Heiner Muller once said that the only hope for the West was the explosion of the third world within it’s cities. Well, it literally just happened. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

I too was taking photos. The sheer amount of documentation of this event was extraordinary. It made me think that there was certainly a relationship between photography and the sacred, and that it was too easy to dismiss the tourist desire to photograph sacred places. It’s easy to say that photographing something turns it into something kitsch, picturesque. But what if taking a photograph actually was a ritual act? Like everything else we saw that night, there was a sense that people were looking for something, trying to make something, through all the candles, through the camera’s eye. But do they find what they’re looking for this way?

We walked west on Canal Street until we hit the river. The highway was cordoned off so that rescue vehicles and trucks full of debris could pass through on their way to the Frozen zone. Incidentally, at one place, maybe Hudson, you could look down the city, and in the far distance, you could see these curvey volcanic mountains of trash, vaguely illuminated like snow covered mountaintops, by the electric light. A Hispanic couple stood in front of us and took turns to pose for photographs in front of the eery sight.

A food donation center had sprung up on the corner of Canal and the West Side Highway. Posses of male steelworkers, who suddenly didn’t look like the slobs leering at women from lunchtime building sites around the world, stopped by, and strange, lone tanned women in hard hats too. The response was overwhelmingly one of men, at least on the streets, with women mostly on the sidelines, serving food and other services, so it was good to see these tough looking women on the scene. Every time a car went by, or a group of workers, looking exhausted but mostly calm walked by, a cheer went up. A group of children chanted “USA! USA!” Flags were everywhere. I find it hard to deal with displays of national pride, since they tend to involve someone somewhere being stomped on. That may be the case here too, but the mood tonight wasn’t jingoistic. It was about finding symbols of support.

A big guy with an Alsatian sniffer dog, who sniffs for bodies, was standing in front of the gas station, being interviewed by an even taller guy with a note pad. He said the dog had once sniffed a body out in six feet of water. They’d come up from the South, driven 22 hours to the Pentagon, stayed overnight and then come to New York. He works for a private firm, but now the government pro dogs are moving in and he’s going home.
We walked north up the highway, past the porno video stores, the joyful queer chaos of Christopher Street and the piers beyond, which were totally deserted on this Saturday night. On Gansevoort Street even the transvestite hookers were dressed up like secretaries in a Doris Day movie, as though out of respect. There was a general feeling of uncertainty in the air — although once upon a time in the 1970s, it was deserted places like Gansevoort Street where you felt the most vulnerable, the most scared. Now, with talk everywhere of chemical and biological warfare, it is the most populated places, like Grand Central Station, where you look nervously around you, unsure about what is going to happen next.

09:12:01 NYC

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

hgwtc1This piece was written the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. In whatever the mental state I was in at that moment, I overstated my remarks about the glee of the newscasters, and the pervasive state of denial that I perceived in the final paragraph, and I apologize for that. At the same time, the mechanisms of denial, which are undoubtedly at work, in myself and other people at this time, should be explored. So, rather than simply erasing and rewriting the piece as though it had never existed, I think it’s best to post and read it as a trauma-document, with all the blind-spots that implies, but also the potential for illumination and altered perception that shock brings with it. As I write, the plume of dust and smoke from the site of what used to be the World Trade Center towers is passing directly over my loft in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. If you scrape your finger over the bonnet of the cars outside, you barely draw a line. It’s milder now than earlier this afternoon when I wandered through downtown Manhattan, unable to see more than three or four blocks ahead because of the musty fog of dust. It’s milder than yesterday afternoon too, when I was hanging out on a stoop in Boerum Hill with some friends. Having safely brought the kids home from school, we drank beer and watched them play, while charred pieces of plastic fell from the sky onto us, and high up above, a steady stream of paper flowed through the sky, driven by the wind. The atmosphere here in New York is not just surreal. It’s unreal. As I walked around Greenwich Village earlier on, college students back for the new semester wandered around, chatting on cell phones (though many cell phone lines are still down), listening to Walkmans, drinking sodas. At sidewalk cafes on Sixth Avenue, tanned customers tuck into plates of tuna carpaccio as ambulances rush by. Mayor Giuliani has suggested that today would be a good day to do some shopping but most of the shops south of 14th Street are shut, so people just wander, as though they can’t think of anything else to do (the multiplex UA cinema at Union Square is having free movies all day – even at midday, there were plenty of takers). Yesterday, when my friend Michele and I picked up her daughter Tallulah from her school on the other side of Brooklyn, roadblocks forced us to park the car miles away from the school and walk. Tallulah’s feet started to blister, and the heat and dust made everyone cranky. We went into a Korean deli on Smith Street and bought Arizona ginseng and honey flavored iced teas and Japanese rice crackers, while above us, the smoke billowed. Maybe this is how it is in wartime: life goes on, however it can, even in the consumer paradise of New York City. But as I write this, about three miles down the road from my Williamsburg [Brooklyn] loft, there are thousands of dead bodies still laying there, under piles of steel and concrete. Of course, there are the EMS volunteers, the doctors, the firemen, the blood donors. The churches too. When my room-mate walked back to Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge yesterday afternoon after work, he was greeted by a group of Hasidim at the Brooklyn end, offering pink lemonade to everyone to refresh their thirst. But Governor Pataki has said on TV that the city doesn’t need any more volunteers. And most people aren’t volunteering. They’re standing in the street, chatting, or at home, in front of the TV. I watched both of the towers go down from the roof here. I first found out yesterday morning around 9 a.m., through Yahoo!, which had a small item about a plane hitting the trade center on the home page. I went to the New York Times web-site, as I usually do in the morning, and there was nothing there. So I shrugged it off: probably some small private plane made a major mistake. Maybe a few deaths. Somehow, not enough for my jaded news-saturated brain to pursue the matter further. Then, about five minutes later I got a call from my sister in London, asking me if I was alright. While I was getting briefed by her on the situation, a call on my other line from a friend in Australia saying “what’s happening there???” I had no idea. So I climbed up onto the roof of the tenement building I live in. My upstairs neighbor Michele was already there. The Puerto Rican pigeon fanciers, with their roof-top coop across the road were there. There was almost nobody else around – all either at work or still asleep. And across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, beyond the Williamsburg Bridge, over there in Manhattan where none of us artists can afford to live these days, the twin towers were on fire. I went down to get my camera. Michelle got her radio, which didn’t work. You could see the glow of the fire inside the towers. It was awful but it was a building on fire. I’ve been in burning buildings before. This was something that could be comprehended, and so somehow we sat on the roof, watching and taking photos. Then the first tower seemed to sway and then it fell, in a vast cloud of white smoke. We looked at each other in confusion. Still somehow it didn’t sink in. We knew that it was likely the second tower was going to go too. We talked about the terror that those left in the remaining building must be feeling. Still, we just sat and watched, and when the second building went down, our cameras were ready. As the thick cloud of smoke expanded and drifted slowly over towards downtown Brooklyn, those on neighboring rooftops began to descend back into their buildings, as you do at the end of a firework display. From this distance, upwind from the smoke, there was simply nothing to see any more, and so, no reason to be up there any more. I’ve had calls and email from all around the world to make sure I’m alright. Besides my nearest and dearest, hardly a single person from within the United States has contacted me. I don’t think it’s because I’m unpopular round these parts. This place shows all the classic symptoms of trauma. Perhaps it’s every man for himself here while in Europe and Australia, people have the luxury of thinking about others. I find that disturbing. If, as the anchors on Channel 7 so gleefully announce, the nation is rooted to their TVs, it’s because they are desperately trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, to push the still unfolding horrors back into the TV set and turn this situation back into a spectacle, an orchestrated Hollywood rerun in which certain images like those of people jumping from the burning buildings (“Too horrible to watch, so we decided not to show it,” explained the news anchor this morning) are edited out, while others, like the second aircraft striking the tower, are endlessly replayed. Everyone is trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, which is still unfolding as I write. Maybe for those in other parts of the country that’s a possibility. Here, I don’t think it’s going to work.