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.

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.

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.

Pandit Pran Nath

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

panditprannath01The sun is going down outside the magenta tinted windows of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House space in Tribeca, New York. It is a summer evening in June 2001 (or 01 VI 10 7:01:00 PM NYC, to use Young’s calendrical system). The synthesized, Just Intonation tuned pitch frequencies of the dronework that usually saturates this space by day are silent, giving way to the annual memorial raga cycle in honour of Pandit Pran Nath. The minimal decor of this room, in which Young and Zazeela’s musical and spiritual guru lived from 1977-79, is transformed by a small shrine, with a picture of Pran Nath, flowers, and burning incense. Young and Zazeela sit behind a mixing desk in the centre of the room, wearing space age biker saddhu gear, and introducing a selection of raga recordings from their Dream House archives, as the small crowd – a mixture of devoted former Pran Nath students and current protegés of Young – lounge on the floor or against the wall. Unless you are lucky enough to own one of the long-unavailable recordings made by Pran Nath, this once a year event is currently the only way that you can hear what his performances sounded like.
No Indian music sounds like Young’s 1970s recordings of Pran Nath. The droning tamburas are located high up in the mix, as loud, rich and powerful as vintage Theater Of Eternal Music (the experimental group Young and Zazeela formed in the mid-60s with John Cale, Tony Conrad and Angus Maclise). The tabla playing is simple but tough. The midnight raga Malkauns is traditionally said to describe a yogi beset by tempting demons while meditating. Recorded in 1976 in a SoHo studio in New York, Pran Nath’s version is unspeakably moving as he slowly chants the composition “Hare Krishna Govinda Ram” over and over, his voice winding in stretched-out, subtly nuanced glissandos that leave you begging for the next note. The 62 minute recording sounds completely traditional in it’s adherence to the slow, minimal style of the Kirana school of Indian classical music which Pran Nath belonged to, while containing in the sound itself everything that was happening in the city that year, the same year that Scorsese’s Taxi Driver hit the movie houses. Pran Nath’s voice and Young’s production turn the city into a sacred modern hyperspace, full of tension and beauty, in which anything, from Krishna to Son of Sam, can manifest.

As the music sends me into one of Young’s “drone states of mind”, I remember another sunset, a few months before, on the other side of the world. I am standing with a group of raga students at the gate of Tapkeshwar, a 5000 year old cave temple devoted to Siva, located about ten miles north of Dehra Dun in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya when the aged temple keeper turns to us and asks “Where is Terry Riley?” Around us a steady flow of pilgrims, old and young, climb down the steps to the entrance of the cave, to pour water over the Siva lingam in the heart of the temple. Not a place one would necessarily expect to find one of America’s most prolific composers of the postwar era. But over the last 30 years, Terry Riley has been a frequent visitor to this cave, where his guru and instructor in the North Indian classical tradition, Pandit Pran Nath, the man he has called “the greatest musician I have ever heard”, lived for a number of years in the 1940s.

If Riley’s presence in Tapkeshwar comes a surprise, it seems equally unlikely that Pran Nath, a reclusive, classically trained Indian singer who spent his time at Tapkeshwar living as a naked, ash covered ascetic, singing only for God, should end his days in the former New York Mercantile Exchange Building that housed Young and Zazeela’s Dream House, teaching Indian classical music to a broad spectrum of America’s avant garde musicians, including Jon Hassell, Charlemagne Palestine, Arnold Dreyblatt, Rhys Chatham, Henry Flynt, Yoshi Wada and Don Cherry. Although virtually unknown in India, Pran Nath’s devotion to purity of tone resonates through key minimalist masterworks like Young’s The Well Tuned Piano, Riley’s Just Intonation keyboard piece Descending Moonshine Dervishes, Henry Flynt’s extraordinary raga fiddling, Charlemagne Palestine’s droneworks and Jon Hassell’s entire Fourth World output.

Pran Nath was born on 3 November 1918, into a wealthy family in Lahore, Pakistan. In the early 20th century, the city was known as the flower of the Punjab, with its own rich musical tradition. According to his students, Pran Nath painted an idyllic picture of the musical culture of Lahore during this period, in which Hindu and Muslim musicians would practise outdoors in different parts of the city, congregating to perform and exchange compositions, and to hang out with their friends, the wrestlers, with whom they formed a fraternity. Many great masters including Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and Pran Nath’s own guru Abdul Wahid Khan, lived in Lahore.

Pran Nath knew from an early age that his vocation was to be a musician, and his grandfather invited musicians into the home to perform in the evenings. But while many eminent Indian classical musicians come from families of musicians, and speak of parents whispering ragas or tal cycles to them as they sleep, Pran Nath’s mother wanted her son to pursue a law career, and, at the age of 13, gave him the choice of abandoning music or leaving home. So he left immediately, and wandered, looking for a teacher, until he came upon Abdul Wahid Khan at a music conference. Pran Nath claimed that he was able to copy every musician he heard until he encountered Wahid Khan, and on this basis decided to become his student.

Abdul Wahid Khan, along with his uncle Abdul Karim Khan, was one of the two major figures of the Kirana gharana, one of North India’s most important families of vocal music – an austere, pious man, with a powerful voice, an encyclopedic knowledge of raga, famed for his methodical elaboration of the alap, the slow improvisatory section of the raga. It is said that when he gave rare radio performances, while other singers would go home after the broadcast, Khansaheb could often be found 20 hours later, still performing the same raga. When asked once why he only practised two ragas, the morning raga Todi and the evening raga Darbari, he replied that, had the morning lasted for ever, he would have dropped the evening raga too.

Becoming a student of Wahid Khan was no easy matter. Pran Nath had no family connections, no money and was a Hindu while Wahid Khan was a devout Muslim. So, he worked for eight years as Wahid Khan’s household servant, before he was finally taken on as a disciple, at the urging of Wahid Khan’s cook. Even after that, life was not easy: Pran Nath was not allowed to practise in his guru’s presence, so he would go into the jungle at night to do so. Sometimes he was beaten if he sang a note incorrectly.

Pran Nath’s vocal abilities were recognised early on: he made his first appearance on All India Radio in 1937. However, the time that he was not serving his teacher he spent living at Tapkeshwar, naked except for a covering of ashes, and singing for God. It is likely that Pran Nath would have remained there, had Wahid Khan not ordered his student, in his guru dukshana (last request), to get married, become a householder and take his music out into the world. This Pran Nath did, moving to Delhi and marrying in 1949. That year, Wahid Khan died.

By all accounts, hearing Pran Nath in full flow at this time was an extraordinary experience. At the All India Music Conference in Delhi in 1953, attended by many of the giants of the classical music scene, Pran Nath’s performance of the rainy season raga Mian Ki Malhar stunned the 5000-strong crowd. Singer and early disciple Karunamayee recalled that when he hit the ‘sa’ note, “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, all 5000 people in the audience. It was a shock to me. All this can be done with music! And when he ended there was torrential rain! Suddenly he got up, he was very sad and frustrated and angry and said, ‘I’m not a musician, I’m only a teacher’, and walked off.”

Shattered by his guru’s death, and contemptuous of modern Indian society, Pran Nath was a moody, imposing figure during his Delhi days. He began teaching, and quickly gathered students, who were mostly reduced to silence by his skills. Singer and long-time student Sheila Dhar recalled in her memoirs: “His lessons consisted mainly in demonstrations of heavy, serious ragas in his own voice. Most of the time we listened in hypnotised states of awe. He had a way of exploring a single note in such detail that it turned from a single point or tone into a vast area that glowed like a mirage. Each of us encountered this magic at different times. Whenever it happened, it overwhelmed us like a religious experience. There was no question of our even trying to repeat this sort of thing. All we could do was to drink it all in and wait for a chance to participate in some undefined way in the distant future.”

The study of Indian classical music had undergone rapid transformation in the 20th century. The traditional guru-disciple relationship that Pran Nath had participated in became an increasingly rare thing by the middle of the century, as the patronage of the Maharajas and their courts disappeared. Radio, music festivals and recording encouraged a popularisation of classical music that favoured the light classical genres of thumri and ghazal over the intense, drawn out spaces of khayal and dhrupad, which Pran Nath was devoted to. After independence in 1947, the teaching of music was increasingly transferred to the universities. Pran Nath himself taught advanced classes in Hindustani classical vocal at Delhi University between 1960 and 1970 – a prestigious position, but one he took little pleasure in, believing that only daily, one-on-one study with a knowledgeable master over a sustained period could properly train a musician.

panditprannath02Among Pran Nath’s students in the 60s was Shyam Bhatnagar, an Indian emigré who ran a yoga academy in New Jersey. It was Bhatnagar who first brought recordings of Pran Nath home to America, where La Monte Young got to hear them. Young had been listening to Indian classical music since the mid-50s, and credits hearing the tambura sound on an early Ali Akbar Khan recording as one of the major influences on his groundbreaking sustained-tone pieces such as 1958’s Trio For Strings.

Throughout the 60s Young and his circle were listening to recordings of the great Indian masters. The Pran Nath recordings they heard in 1967, with their slow majestic alaps and extraordinarily precise intonation were at once new, but also uncannily similar to Young’s own music. “The fact that I was so interested in pitch relationships, the fact that I was interested in sustenance and drones, drew me toward Pandit Pran Nath,” he states. The track that fills one side of The Black Record (1969), Map of 49’s Dream The Two Systems of Eleven Sets of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery, on which Young sings shifting, raga-like phrases, backed only by a drone produced by a sinewave generator and Marian Zazeela’s voice, was “heavily influenced by Pandit Pran Nath”, according to Young. “It included drones, and pitch relationships, some of which also exist in Indian classical music. It does not proceed according to the way a raga proceeds. It has very static sections… Raga is very directional, even though it has static elements, whereas a great deal of my music really is static.” Map Of 49’s Dream… reintroduced melody to the potent, austere sustained tones favoured in The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, the major work of the early 60s Theater Of Eternal Music ensemble.

In 1970, Young, Zazeela and Bhatnagar invited Pran Nath to America, after procuring grant money for him and a teaching position at the New School for Social Research in New York. In a piece written for the Village Voice in May 1970, headlined “The Sound Is God”, a euphoric Young enthused over Pran Nath’s intonation: “his singing was the most beautiful I had ever heard”. But although Young emphasized Pran Nath’s rock solid foundations in the Kirana vocal style, his interpretation of his teacher was hardly a traditional one. After praising Pran Nath’s perfect intonation and melodic abilities, the article launched into a discussion of the physics of sound, and the effect of different SOUND frequencies, measured in hertz, on neurons in the basilar membranes in the ear. “When a specific set of harmonically related frequencies is continuous or repeated,” Young concluded, “as is often the case in my music and Indian music, it could more definitively produce (or simulate) a psychological state that may be reported by the listener since the set of harmonically related frequencies will continuously trigger a specific set of the auditory neurons which in turn will continuously perform the same operation of transmitting a periodic pattern of impulses to the corresponding set of fixed points in the cerebral cortex.”

In the early 70s, Young demonstrated Pran Nath’s ability to produce and sustain very precise sound frequencies using an oscilloscope, and to this day, he is as likely to introduce a raga by expressing the tonic in hertz rather than more traditional means. The notion that all aesthetic experience, be it music, film or drug induced, is a form of programming of the nervous system, was a common one in the 60s. Inspired by Hindu scholar Alain Danielou, Young applied this idea to raga, and its concern for evoking specific moods by use of specific pitch relationships.

In May 1970, Pran Nath made his first trip to the West Coast, where he met Young’s long-time associate Terry Riley. Young, Zazeela and subsequently Riley all became formal disciples of Pran Nath, committing themselves to extensive study with him, and to providing his material needs in return for lessons. For many years, Pran Nath lived in Young and Zazeela’s loft while in New York, and in Riley’s loft in San Francisco, until in the mid-80s, in declining health after a heart attack in 1978, he moved into his own house in Berkeley, where he remained, for the most part, until his death on 13 June 1996. On both East and West Coasts, members of Sufi communities studied with Pran Nath, but in New York there was also Young and Zazeela’s gharana-like circle of downtown musicians.

During this period, Young, Zazeela and Riley, and later trumpeter Jon Hassell, accompanied Pran Nath on his return trips to India, often staying for extended periods of time to study music at a temple in Dehra Dun, where Pran Nath was temple musician to Swami Narayan Giriji, former temple keeper at Tapkeshwar. “We’d come to the temple early in the morning,” recalls Hassell, “and Swamiji would be 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 [balls of hashish and almond paste] and listen to the children sing, the arti bells clapping, the swallows overhead, the muezzin singing from the minaret nearby. I mean, it was total ecstasy!” These trips gradually evolved into a yearly ritual, which has continued under the guidance of Riley and West Coast Sufi teacher Shabda Kahn, who still take groups each year to visit Pran Nath’s sacred places. There, they would study with Kirana masters like Mashkor Ali Khan, a 45 year old blood relative of Abdul Wahid Khan, who commands a vast knowledge of ragas and a fiery vocal technique.

Young, Zazeela and Riley’s commitment to Pran Nath involved more than a superficial absorption of a few Indian mannerisms. For a decade and a half, Pran Nath lived in Young and Zazeela’s loft for a good part of each year, and the New York night owls were typically required to rise at 3am each day to prepare tea for their teacher, who slept at the other end of the loft. He would then perform his riaz [practice] and give them a lesson – if he chose to. “He was the head of the household,” recalls Young. “We were not allowed to have friends. We had to give up everything – rarely did we even get to visit our parents. He was very protective of us and extremely possessive of us. But we got the reward. The reward is, if you make the guru happy, then you get the lessons.” Much of the rest of the day would be spent taking care of his financial affairs, booking students and concerts, and raising money for dowries so that his three daughters in India could get married. Riley, Young and Zazeela all sacrificed their own careers while serving Guruji (as he was affectionately known), alienating patrons who thought they should be focusing on their own work. According to Henry Flynt, John Cale once quipped that it was Pran Nath who should be taking lessons from La Monte, since he was the one with the “hard sound”.

Another part of discipleship was teaching. “He ordered us to make his own school,” Young recalls, “the Kirana School for Indian Classical Music; and then he ordered us to teach. And when I said, ‘No, Guruji, I’m not ready,’ he said, ‘you have to do as I say, it’s not up to you’.” Pran Nath made a similar demand of Riley, and Riley, Young and Zazeela have continued teaching Kirana-style Indian classical vocal to this day. Conversely, Pran Nath began teaching at Mills College in Oakland in 1973, and continued until 1984.

Pran Nath was not without his detractors. Anyone hearing him perform after 1978 would have experienced only a shadow of his former powers, since he suffered a heart attack in that year and developed Parkinson’s disease during the following decade. Even in his prime, Pran Nath was an unorthodox performer, rejecting crowd pleasing duels with tabla players, for stretched out alaps, often dwelling on the first three notes of a raga for 15 minutes or more. “Sometimes,” recalls Riley, “in the middle of the raga he would suddenly stop and start singing another raga in a performance and it would feel fine. He would maybe sing one tone that would remind him of that other raga and he’d get so inspired he’d just go off into that.” Pran Nath himself cared little about building a public reputation: in India, he snubbed critics and patrons, insulted master musicians during their performances, and had an aversion to recording and radio work. Even in America, throwing in his lot with Young and the New York avant garde or the California Sufis was hardly a guaranteed road to fame and fortune. Aside from one track recorded with The Kronos Quartet in 1993 (“Aba Kee Tayk Hamaree”/“It Is My Turn, Oh Lord”, from Short Stories), there were no collaborations with Western artists, no ‘fusion’ experiments, no compromises. He didn’t care. “This business is only for the contentment of your soul,” he would say.

Although he was a firm believer in tradition, Pran Nath himself was an outsider in India. Famous singers including Bhimsen Joshi and Salamat & Nazakat Ali Khan (“They spoiled my lessons!”, he claimed in 1972) came to him to increase their knowledge of specific ragas, yet he himself never became a celebrity. “Those who know music know his place,” says The Hindustan Times’s music critic Shanta Serbjeet Singh. “He was not a musician with a performer personality: he was too intense, too withdrawn.” According to composer Charlemagne Palestine, Pran Nath was attracted to the American avant garde because “He also was out of his culture, 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 live in socially, as a normal member.” But despite Pran Nath’s reported fondness for Chivas Regal and watching television, he was not unduly impressed with the West either. Mathematician and composer Catherine Christer Hennix, another Pran Nath student and protegé of Young, recalls, “The only time I remember he was enthusiastic, we were in San Francisco. He liked to watch TV, and we were watching a programme about whales. He heard the whales sing and he started to cry. That was his most profound spiritual experience of the Western world.”