Meditation Music

Meditation Music

A heavy synthesizer drone fills the air, like something out of early Tangerine Dream. For a moment I can’t believe I’m actually hearing it. I’m standing in the bookstore at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. An elephant at the temple next door is giving blessings with his trunk. There is music in ashrams of course – devotional singing in groups, bhajans, chants – but this is different, the music unfolds slowly, some strange kind of fusion of Debussy, prog rock and raga, powerful and heavy. I ask one of the staff who it is and I’m told that it’s by Sunil, a former scientist who lived in the ashram for decades and began composing keyboard and later synthesizer music at the encouragement of one of the ashram’s two founders, The Mother, partner of the ashram’s namesake, Bengali poet, mystic and nationalist hero Sri Aurobindo. Sunil composed music in honor of the New Year each year from 1959 to 1998, and also set many hours of Aurobindo’s remarkable epic poem Savitri to music. I ask where I can buy the music but no one knows. They just call the music “ashram music”. I’m told that maybe someone at another office can burn me some mp3s, but nothing is for sale.
Although the ashram itself has proved itself adapt at running guest and publishing houses and a variety of other businesses which sustain the community, Sunil’s music was made as an act of devotion, and outside the visionary community founded by Aurobindo and the Mother it is almost unknown. It’s a remarkable story, but not unique. There is Alice Coltrane’s retreat from the jazz scene and commercial recordings to a California ashram where she sang and played, occasionally issuing cassettes of devotional music under the name of Swamini Turiyasangitananda that were available only at the ashram. Or Oliver Messiaen, who played the church organ at services at La Trinité in Paris from 1931 to his death in 1992. And this was not Messiaen’s only work outside of the conventional space of the concert hall. His famous “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed in the Stalag VIII-A concentration camp where the composer was interned during World War II, and received its performance in the camp for an audience of prisoners and prison guards with Messiaen playing a busted up old piano.
Many performers have had parallel careers performing and participating in religious communities – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan continued performing at Sufi shrines in Pakistan after his recordings became a fixture of yoga classes in the West. In other religious communities, including Christian Pentecostal churches, everybody sings and everybody participates and there is no audience. The line between producer and consumer is erased — and participants would probably claim that God (or Gods, or spirits) is the producer and the audience too. Communes offer another version of this — Amon Duul in Munich 1967, the early Faust in Würme emerged as “rock groups” out of much more undefined sets of collective activities, of which making music was one kind of ritual, complete with “om” chants, “tribal” percussion jams and other spiritual elements. Or Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, a group emerging out of a commune of 100 people living in a mansion in Los Angeles, selling home made LPs for $1 in their health food restaurant. Or the Sun Ra Arkestra in Philadelphia, whose performances always felt like looking in on a private festival or ritual, complete with esoteric language and style. Although not overtly religious, such groups made music as a way of exploring and expressing an ecstatic community that was an end in itself, and a “spiritual” one at that. Making and selling recordings could be an act of evangelism, a crazy get-rich-quick scheme fuelled by “cosmic” intuitions, or simply a humble attempt to make a living and support the community.
Indian classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath thought that students recording his lessons, or even notating what he was singing, was a bad idea and a corruption of what the music really is. Furthermore, he was against the recording of music and found even amplification problematic. He lived for a while in a famous Siva cave in the foothills of the Himalaya, singing for God and the community living in the cave – supporting himself with occasional trips to Delhi to perform for All India Radio. Practice, and the perfection of it also becomes an end in itself. Practice is of course a part of many music cultures from the decades of finger studies of classical pianists to weekly punk rock band practice. But the word practice also has a religious meaning, when the discipline of making music is performed with the intention of perfecting oneself before God. In such a practice, one might never actually utter a sound – in some traditions, the repetition of mantras, sacred or magical phrases, is thought to be more powerful if it is entirely mental; I’ve also been told of Indian classical musicians who mentally practice scales hundreds of octaves above or below those found on a piano, as an act of concentration.
At the highest level the mystery of music concerns the manifestation of sound as a set of powerfully affective structures that come from … who knows where? But if music is a gift then the act of listening also becomes creative and potentially devotional. Thus Cage’s 4’ 33” or Philip Corner’s “I Can Walk Through the World as Music”, both pieces where music and meditation come close to one another, in the act of paying attention to the actually existing sound environment. This act of paying attention could take you a long way – in various yogic traditions, one is advised to listen to “the unstruck sound”, the sound that remains when all that is temporary fades away again after manifesting … the original drone, Nad Brahma – “sound is God”.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

GamelanNewWorldFIN2

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

If you picked this cd up because of the title “Gamelan in the New World” with its suggestion of folkloric and ethnomusicological authenticity, expecting traditional Javanese or Balinese sounds, you will probably be in for a surprise when you encounter the joyous clattering of fluxus composer Philip Corner’s “Gamelan P.C” or Elena Cary’s “DNA”, in which the structural relationships between the four bases that compose the DNA strand are explored by being transposed to the gamelan. Although the gamelan had been an inspiration to generations of American composers, from Cowell, through Cage to Reich (and before them of course, back in the Old World, there was Debussy), the freedom with which these 1970s heads, high on the wondrous metallic resonances that the traditional Indonesian instruments make available, is eye and ear opening stuff. One of those chance encounters that irrevocably create a “New World” in the split-second before all the opposing forces of academe, orthodoxy and political correctness has the opportunity to stop it from happening.

In 1972, ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary took a position in the music program at Livingston College, part of Rutgers University in New Jersey, whose faculty then included Philip Corner and electronics composer Daniel Goode. In 1974, at a summer program for the study of Asian culture, she met West Coast composer Lou Harrison, who, after extensive study in Indonesia, produced a number of works mixing gamelan with Western concert instruments. “Lou was very encouraging for us to produce works for the gamelan”, Benary recalls. “We used his own gamelan which was home made. Four or five of us who played on those instruments went on and found other Gamelans, one of whom was Dan Schmitt, with his Berkeley Gamelan, another one was called Gamelan Pacifica. They wrote and performed their own compositions.”

Upon her return to the East Coast, Benary decided to build a Javanese gamelan, which beginners in the program could use as part of a study group, to gain hands-on experience in ethnic music. She built the gamelan, using directions written out by fellow former Wesleyan student Dennis Murphy, buying an 8 by 4 sheet of steel, and having it cut into strips for the keyboards, and building resonators out of discarded pet food and grapefruit juice cans. The Asian Music Performing Group at Livingston started using it, and Corner sat in with them.

In 1975, when Benary was pregnant, the group joined and merged with Corner’s New Music Performing Group (her “Sleeping Braid” is “an accompaniment for Lyra Samara Silverstein, then six months old”). Benary had initially been against composing contemporary music for the gamelan, feeling that traditional instruments should be used for traditional music. “I just hadn’t heard anyone do it in a persuasive way,” she says. “With Phil, I didn’t think he was doing a disservice to traditional music, because what he was doing had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music. I know some people, like Steve Reich, were bothered though.”

So the group began performing contemporary pieces written by various group members, and gave concerts at the school, at Princeton, and at lofts in New York. The name of the group, Gamelan Son of Lion, comes from translating Benary’s surname – which means Son of Lion in Hebrew. In 1976 or 1977 Benary was denied tenure at Livingston, and the gamelan was moved to Corner’s New York loft. Corner continued composing for gamelan until he moved to Italy in 1992, when the gamelan was moved to Goode’s loft – where Gamelan Son of Lion still rehearses and performs, incorporating wayang kulit shadow puppet shows to the music.

While Harrison, and other American predecessors, such as Colin McPhee, who’d lived in Bali and written compositions for the gamelan, were careful to preserve relatively traditional structures in their work, Corner and colleagues approached the gamelan from a Cagean perspective, as a set of sound producing objects whose nature was to be explored, free of any pre-existing determining forms or structures. And yet, in the course of his encounter with the gamelan, Corner found his own composition methods changing rapidly: “I had been working for years with resonant metals and gongs, cymbals, meditative things,” he recalled recently. “There’s even a piece for audience participation called “Metal Meditations” that I did. So I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom. My first impulse was to take one of those pieces and transcribe it to gamelan. I immediately realized that was totally absurd. The nature of the gamelan is like having a keyboard with a scale of notes, and which note do I pick for repetitive cluster like sounds? On what basis do I limit it to some of the choices of the gamelan and end up with something that would actually sound better? So I decided that to go further I would have to accept what the gamelan gave which was essentially the scalar pattern.”
Corner’s exploration of the gamelan’s pattern-creating abilities brought with it a reconciliation with a former enemy – numbers. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach, and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which the numbers always seemed to inhibit. But, in the fifties, there were also pieces where I explored pulses, or pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. But I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation.”

Curiously, as Corner himself has noted, in using mathematical structures to organize the gamelan’s pattern making abilities, he ended up reproducing some of the structural underpinnings of Indonesian gamelan music. While much process-based composition can look and sound as dry and cold as those early personal computer program instructions that were circulating in the late 1970s, here was a metal-based musical form that thrived on numbers and processes without ever sounding machine-like (even when, on Dika Newlin’s “Machine Shop”, the piece is “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper-punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, N.J.).

Metal has its own magic, and the gamelan instruments a life of their own, which emerges out of the resonant properties of metal, and the individual pieces of metal being tuned together as an inter-connected set. Corner explains: “The reality is the group, the instruments: the people come and go, the instruments stay the same, they’re matched and they go together. So you have the sense of joining something which already exists as a metaphysical phenomenon. Then, the physical aspect of it, sitting on the floor, taking your place before the instrument in an almost necessarily homageful posture. Relating to everyone in the way that the instruments are set up. Even when, as some people did, they did pieces from music with a music stand, it still had that feeling of being in it together, playing together, listening to each other and contributing to a whole.”

In the accompanying sleevenotes, Corner and co. display a determined refusal to abandon their search for their own (“American”) relationships to these instruments. Although he has since had his works performed in Java and Bali, collaborated with Javanese masters, and invited Javanese groups to play in the U.S., Corner only visited Indonesia for the first time in 1986 (he also studied with Lou Harrison in 1982). While much of the West Coast based gamelan music affiliates itself with the idea of a pan-Pacific culture which it then becomes a legitimate part of, the more geographically distant Gamelan Son of Lion is defiantly rooted in the Cagean experimental tradition of the New York avant garde, and its search for the New and the Marvelous. In an interview made just before Corner’s first trip to Indonesia, he observed: “You can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.”
The question as to Who We Are, or for that matter, what kind of a “New World” this is, remains open. As Benary says, many of the battles fought in the 1970s have been won, and the encounter of contemporary and traditional ethnic musics is an accepted part of the musical landscape, in the U.S. and Europe. Still, these CDs bear testimony to the possibility of a more radical encounter between traditional music, with all it’s accumulation of richness and detail, and the avant-garde’s raw apprehension of the sound universe in its totality. In Benary’s words:

“Outside me musics are in
categories,
A flux of contradictions.
But the flux which is my life
is one thing
Within me categories fade.
The synthesis within
is creation
From here music is taken
To return to the flux
From which its pieces come.”

Originally published as the sleevenotes to the Gamelan Son of Lion recordings published by Locust CDs.

FM3fin

FM3
by
Marcus Boon

The Buddha Machine is a plastic transistor radio sized object with a built in speaker that allows the listener to switch between 9 infinitely repeating sound loops, each ambient, minimal and melodic and all under 40 seconds. Made by FM3 (“FM San” in Mandarin), the Beijing based duo of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian, it has become one of the more unlikely successes to emerge from the global improv/electronic underground. Originally made in an edition of 500, half of which were to be used in art installations and performances, Virant and Zhang Jian have sold over 15,000 of the machines, and have been lauded by everyone from Spin to Entertainment Weekly. In a remarkable act of generic mismatching/shoe-horning, the New York Times listed the machine as one of the best boxed sets of 2005. A parade of hipster cognoscenti, from Brian Eno to the Sun City Girls’ Alan Bishop have bought multiples of the machine and sung its praises, and in November, Staubgold will release a compilation of Buddha Machine remixes called Jukebox Buddha including contributions by Tortoise, Sun O))), Aki Onda, Adrian Sherwood, Blixa Bargeld and others.

Virant and Zhang Jian began FM3 in Beijing in 1999, at a time when there was no electronic music scene to speak of in the city. Virant, who grew up in Nebraska during the hardcore punk era of the early 1980s, had been living in various East Asian cities since the late 1980s, learning traditional instruments, while experimenting with minimalist loop based methods of computer music composition. Jhang Zian, who grew up in Chengdu in Szechuan province, studied piano in music school there, but dropped out to become a travelling musician. He moved to Beijing in 1995, the same year that Virant did, and became keyboard player of choice for the city’s underground rock acts like Confucius Says. In recent years, he has made his living creating soundtracks for theater, film and TV in Beijing.

FM3 began with the idea of musical performance built around a computer. The group started out making acid house-like tracks with a guitarist, but when the group became a duo, began working with folk music samples. At first the duo hired local musicians to record samples for them. But according to Virant, “we were never interested in making Chinese electronic folk music. Around 2002, we realized that what we wanted these people to play, we could do ourselves. What we were looking for were the weird things, the accidents, the pauses in between their really eloquent melodies. So we borrowed these instruments and then immediately it became much easier to make our music. At that time we performed live with prepared Chinese instruments or invented or modified ones, along with two laptops playing drones.”

This period is captured well on Ambience Sinica, a bootleg of a 2002 performance, and the more recent Mort aux Vaches disk released by Staalplaat in 2005. In fact, most of the sound loops that appear on the Buddha Machine are made from samples of traditional Chinese instruments including the gu zheng (Chinese koto), ma tou qin (Mongolian “horse head” fiddle) and sheng (mouth organ) used as loops in live performances from this period. Outside of performance, the duo split the work up, with Zhang Jian contributing an ever growing array of field recordings, and Virant cutting up and editing them.

As an outgrowth of their interest in transforming field recordings, the duo have made two contributions to Sun City Girls’ ethnomusicological label Sublime Frequencies, the excellent Streets of Lhasa, consisting of recordings of folk music and street sounds in the Tibetan capital, and Radio Pyongyang, a bizarre and fascinating edit of North Korean “commie funk” and other propaganda pop, taped from shortwave radio by Virant in Hong Kong and Beijing. Zhang Jian does not speak English, but in what sounds like more than fair Mandarin, Virant conveys my questions to him and I get brief, rather modest replies. I ask him how he relates to Sublime Frequencies aesthetic of weirdness and appropriation and he replies: “the Tibet things you can’t say are weird – actually it’s quite beautiful. Weirdness is an attraction of course, but when I start editing at home, I go for the beautiful parts, not just weirdness.”

Soon to come on Sublime Frequencies are recent recordings made by Zhang in Bangladesh, a second volume of North Korean sounds (as a Chinese citizen, Zhang can enter the country freely) and a compilation of recordings of minority folk musics from rural China, originally recorded and released by Huan Qing, an old friend of Zhang’s from Szechuan in a hand lettered and packaged 8 CD set in China.

Recently the group has been asked to contribute a sound environment for one of the parks at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. When I ask Virant whether he feels that FM3 are in danger of becoming poster-boys for globalization, Virant laughs and deadpans “Unfortunately we have not been exploited as a model for globalization!” In fact the group remains virtually unknown in China, outside of the small but rapidly expanding electronic music scene. “If you’re a really famous person like a theater actor you get invited to Germany to give a performance of traditional Chinese culture, you stay for a week and then you go back home. It’s a cultural exchange understanding of the world. Zhang Jian said recently that he’s not making more money now than he was say when we played the Louvre. If a classical musician like Tan Dun played the Louvre he’s famous and it’s a big deal in China. We played three shows at the Louvre to 500 people and it’s not in the media, nobody here knows about it – because people don’t understand what we’re doing.”

Alternative culture is emerging slowly in Beijing, and FM3 does play underground rock venues like Nameless Highland and Get Lucky, as well as “the current home of the avant garde”, a Tuesday night show called Waterland Kwanyin at a bar called Dos Kolegas, curated by Yan Jun (who also runs Kwan Yin records). There are magazines like Tong Su Ge Qu (“Pop Song Weekly”) devoted to underground rock, but FM3 is outside their radar. “With our current Buddha Boxing show, Zhang and I sit at a table and play Buddha Machines as if it were a card game. And the concept of it people don’t get – they don’t consider it a performance, so very quickly it’s not something they write about, and they ignore it.” Nevertheless, he insists that FM3 is a Beijing group, and that the Chinese and American origins of the duo are irrelevant, compared to their own particular musical tastes and ways of working. There is also a rapidly expanding noise/electronica scene in Beijing fuelled by almost universal access to computers and bootleg software. “You essentially have a nation of kids with access to free instruments and that instrument happens to be a laptop,” says Virant. In the wake of this access, a million Merzbows are blooming.

How to explain the success of the Buddha Machine? Setting aside the unquestionable beauty of the loops, there is something about the conjunction of these very abstract, brief, melodic, infinitely repeatable fragments with a Chinese factory-manufactured plastic object that really speaks to the moment that we find ourselves in. The Buddha Machine is like globalization in a box, and embodies many of its contradictions. Marx said that commodity fetishism turned a table on its head and made it dance around. Now FM3 have produced a fetish object that plays its own music to dance to – an industrial era manufactured object with an information age sound coming out of it. All the more ironic, since the original Buddha Machine, which looped Buddhist mantras and chants, related a pre-modern sound, that of devotional singing, to an industrial era object, arguably transforming it in the process into “information”. FM3’s Buddha Machine (neither of the group are Buddhists), is essentially an appropriation of the original design (sold in China as “Chang Fo Ji”), with the group’s own musical loops replacing the mantras. And their machine is produced at a Buddhist factory on the SW Chinese coast, whose primary business is making the original chanting machines for export to Buddhist temples and believers throughout the world.

Through their experiences working with the factory, Virant and Zhang Jian have become unlikely participants in the remarkable explosion of industrial activity that is happening in China today. “Every time we go to the factory we’re inspired because that area of China is where huge amounts of global products are made,” observes Virant. “You drive down the street and you see factories making this and that and we stop at every one. That’s all we really do now is weird factory tours throughout China looking for ideas! It’s inspiring being in this place that most people regard as a huge export base, making toys for the global economy — but which we see as a fertile ground for ideas.”

“Recently we were talking about making a new FM3 product,” Virant continues, “And Zhang said “OK, we’ve got to go to this city to do it,” and when we get there it’s a huge marketplace for bizarre things like keychains with LED lights. One market there is the world’s largest market for sunglasses and a high percentage of all the world’s sunglasses are made there. There are huge airline hangars where the producers display their wares – you go there and say “OK, I want 100 million of these,” — they’re not retail places. The real problem we had with the Buddha Machine is that we don’t look or talk like serious businessmen and we’re not going to buy a hundred million of anything so people won’t deal with us, because they don’t want to waste their time talking to weird musicians from Beijing. If Jeff Koons and others who deal with huge art projects started visiting these cities, eventually all global art projects would be exported from China! An installation person would just say “OK, I want this and this and this” and get it done at these factories and have them ship it over to whatever gallery he’s exhibiting in.”

FM3 have become garageland commodity producers, involved in a strange kind of DIY mass production – much like the Chinese factory owners whose initiation into the industrial capitalist marketplace dates to around the same time as the post-punk DIY ethos that spawned Virant’s interest in music. The Buddha Machines, with their tinny speakers and cheap, bright, plastic vibe are disposable, fragile, and peculiarly intimate – just like a lot of the “trashy” objects made in these factories and sold in shopping malls around the world. FM3 celebrate this aesthetic. “The first generation models were designed so you had to hold it really close to your ear to hear it properly,” enthuses Virant. “We like the intimacy of it – you have to get so close to this piece of plastic and then out of it comes this really evocative piece of music. Zhang and I have always been about taking cheap equipment to any place we can play. On the one hand we’re quite lazy and always looking for the easy way out, and on the other, we’re very devoted to this simple way of performing. With the Buddha Machine, the design of the boxes, the printing, we got it all done at the last minute. Even the speaker and the lo-fi 6-bit chip – we really like that. It gives you the idea that anyone could have done it and should have 20 years ago.”

“We were joking that if Carston Nikolai had made the Buddha Machine it would be this beautiful, brilliantly designed, hand crafted, silver 24-bit stereo amazing thing,” concludes Virant. “We play very quiet hypnotic music and the Buddha Machine is inoffensive, unassuming, made of cheap plastic. Almost like a Tamagotchi that plays music. That’s the kind of thing we’re attracted to. You have to see beyond the crass commercialization of all this stuff – and because Zhang and I are not living in a Xmas dominated economy we can. In the West maybe you see a Furby doll and it’s annoying because whatever Xmas ago Furby was huge, but what we see is an amazing speech recording device which we can then mold into any shape we want.”

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

boonseismic

Four Seismic Musical Events

Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Ustad Hafizullah Khan, Hazrat Allaudin Sabri’s shrine, Dehra Dun, India, February 2001
The idea of a live performance not intended primarily for human ears is a powerful one – and many religious traditions value the idea of singing for God. In the Sufi temples of India and Pakistan, the main sound played in the courtyard is qawalli, ecstatic vocals backed by harmoniums and hand drums, popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also sang at all night sessions at Sufi shrines. Hazrat Allaudin Sabri was a fourteenth century Sufi master (founder of the Chishti-Sabri branch of Sufism) said to be so intense and austere that the only person who could stand near him was his musician, who sat with his back to him at some distance, so as not to be scorched by the master’s vibrations. 600 years later, Sabri’s shrine is still a very intense place, the shrine itself full of men praying, many of them in states of ecstasy. I visited the shrine with several masters of the Kirana gharana (Pandit Pran Nath’s gharana) to whom the place is sacred, including the late Ustad Hafizullah Khan, khalife of the gharana and a master sarangi player, and the remarkable singer Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan. It was mid-day, we sat in the courtyard, a crowd gathered, kids, old men, everything between. The singing began, not qawalli, but Hindustani raga music, and the crowd listened. Hafizullah’s son Samiullah began to sing and it pierced my heart, a beautiful pure tone. I looked around and saw that I wasn’t alone. The atmosphere was one of intoxication, tears, drunkenness, a world turned upside down but gently so. I saw a man do a backflip while pacing back and forth on the marble verandah to the temple, totally entranced. I felt like I’d smoked a pound of hash. “Music can do all this!” as one of my colleagues said to me.

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

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

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

Originally published in The Wire, 2007 in a feature on “seismic” live events.

03a Karunaj

An Interview with Sri Karunamayee

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 (surlaya@flash.net), 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. 

Originally published in Ascent, 2002.