Catherine Christer Hennix, Drones and the Changing Same

I’ve spent the last few weeks finishing a profile of Swedish mathematician/visual artist/composer Catherine Christer Hennix for The Wire, in honor of the recent release of her 35 year old sustained tone masterpiece The Electric Harpsichord.  The conversation spiraled off in many ways, from mathematical logic to quantum field theory to the Swedish jazz scene in the 1960s – take a look, it’ll be in the October issue.

It also got me thinking about drones some more, and why they can be such powerful audio experiences.  My general hunch is that it has to do with sameness, which is a topic I became fascinated with in writing In Praise of Copying.  Mostly we celebrate difference, diversity, novelty in our society. We associate sameness with fascist conformity, boredom, lack of imagination.  In some ways of course, there is a sameness to things today that is disturbing: we value diversity but all diversity today has to be channeled through the marketplace, and with globalization, an increasing uniformity of places, cultures, societies.  But maybe, as Alain Badiou says in his Ethics, the problem is finding the right kind of sameness.  I note that Jacques Derrida, in his original essay on “Differance” actually wrote that “we provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.”  Somehow, that sameness dropped out of the picture as post-structuralism developed, and differance became mere difference.  What did Derrida mean? Approaching this problem through Buddhist philosophy, I come to the notion of “nonduality” or, more clumsily but maybe more helpfully, “nonconceptual sameness”, meaning the nonexistence of concepts that allow for the elaboration of difference.

I think what some people find irritating about drone musics is their sameness, nonconceptual or otherwise.  But to me that irritation is a sign of resistance to what’s going on, because there’s always something new going on when you let yourself experience a drone fully.  La Monte Young argued that “tuning is a function of time” and that as you tune into the harmonics in a drone, you experience new aspects of it.  Your own relationship to that continuous sound changes because second by second you are changing, physically and cognitively.  At the same time though, when you relax into the sound, it can be ecstatic, and that is where I would locate the “nonconceptual sameness”.  You loosen up your own sense of yourself and something opens up.  Somehow, the drone lets you concentrate … on what? The sound? On your own psyche experiencing the sound? Both probably.  I think there’s a taste of the power of the drone in all copying, since a copy is a repetition, just as a drone is a repetition.  That’s really what I meant by “in praise of copying”.

The Electric Harpsichord is an uncanny piece. Henry Flynt wasn’t exaggerating when he called it “a revelation”.  I’ve listened to it a number of times over the last decade and I invariably have the disconcerting but elating experience of the ground beneath me melting about half way through the piece.  This is presumably what Hennix and Flynt meant when they coined the term HESE (“Hallucinogenic Ecstatic Sound Experience”) to describe works like EH in the late 1970s. When it was composed/performed, EH was part of a whole cluster of multidisciplinary efforts that Hennix was involved in ranging from visual art works to abstract Noh plays, to treatises on logic such as “17 Points on Intensional Logics for Intransitive Experiences, 1969-1979” and “Toposes and Adjoints”.  Aside from a remarkable journal issue Io #41 published in 1989 (subtitle: “Being = Space x Action”) this work was never published.   The Io issue is remarkable: it also features work by Hennix’s mathematical mentor Alexander Esenin-Volpin, a founder of the human rights movement in Russia as well as the mathematical school of ultra-intuitionism, a key essay by Flynt, work by poets George Quasha and Charles Stein, and a lucid introduction to Hennix’s work by Stein.

As a non-specialist in the outer regions of advanced mathematics, it’s hard to evaluate how solid the mathematical work is, and how directly it can be related to the soundworks that Hennix was producing.  Yet the argument, made by both Hennix and Flynt, that one could extract a method for producing ecstatic sound works that is based on a radically reworked philosophy that takes in and appropriates mathematical logic, amongst other things, remains an intriguing one.  Who even has that kind of ambition today?  The notion that a radically different science or set of scientific goals could or would emerge from a different set of values to those that our own societies are built around today could be a very powerful one, taking us beyond techno-fetishism of both the libertarian and Marxist kinds on the one hand, and Luddite attitudes on the other. A lot is asked of those who want to take this path … but is that such a bad thing?

Finally it comes down to the work, and, archivally, there’s not that much of it: EH was only performed once, though there are other unreleased recordings by Hennix from the 1970s. A number of Flynt’s HESE-related recordings, as is a duo recording with Hennix entitled “Dharma Warriors”.   On the other hand, Hennix is alive and well and living in Berlin, where she now has a band called the Chorasan Time-Court Mirage, featuring the marvellous Italian born dhrupad vocalist Amelia Cuni. A demo recording that I’ve listened to is pretty mesmerizing: a digitally produced drone, with Hilary Jeffery’s trombone and Hennix’s voice.  It’s trance inducing but not New Age at all!  Definitely a work in progress ….


  1. Dear Markus,

    Thank you so much for the your very nice article on Hennix in The Wire – and for this follow up post. I’m very fascinated with Hennix and in particular the philosophical/mathematical parts of her work. Since I’m located in Denmark and can’t seen to find the Io journal in any accessible library, is there any way you can think of of how I’d be able to read the 41st issue that you refer to? And do you have any other references that refer to this part of her oevre?

    Thanks again

    • Thanks Magnus. The Io issue is available used from various booksellers, and is probably the best introduction to Hennix. There’s another journal from 1985, WCH WAY #6 that has a piece by Hennix in it. There are also a couple of catalogs (I think?) from the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm published in the 1970s – but I’ve never seen these. Apparently Hennix is putting together a website, so more material may be available in the near future.

  2. In the article you mention the new group as “The Chorsan Time Court Mirage”, but in this post you call it “Chorasan Time Circle”. Which is it ? Did she give any indication when there might be a public live performance ?
    Great article as always, btw.

    • marcus3001 says

      You’re right … it’s “The Chorasan Time-Court Mirage” … altho the group used to be called “The Chorasan Time-Court”. I believe there are plans for them to play, but I don’t know any details yet.

  3. Thanks for your piece in the Wire about Catherine Christer Hennix. Opened my head up to her ideas about sound vibration and the ecstatic nature of drones which is hard to verbalize unless you’re in the middle of it. Was fortunate enough to play with Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio a couple of years back and started hearing voices in the overtones – somehow produced by massed guitars, cello and violins. It was definitely about more than a bunch of people playing an E note!

  4. I finally received my copy of EH by Catherine Christer Hennix and along with a couple of friends we listened in silence.

    Initially, I found it a little disturbing and tried to ascertain why it had this effect on me but I listened to the whole piece along with my two friends, one of which happens to be a Raike Master. The general consensus was that this was not Emperors New Cloths and deserved to be taken seriously.

    My own personal final thoughts were that I was reminded very much of an Indian Raga accompaniment without a lead instrument and as such I was a little non plussed

    Kenneth West Riding-UK