OK the CIRCLE cover is much smaller than it should be. If you're a fan, or interested in modern significant music, this is well worth a watch... and on the philosophical side...
RED DESERT is just beautiful, incredibly colorful and anti-catholic... a great film.
Fujiko Nakaya + Shiro Takatani “CLOUD FOREST”
Date: August 7 (sat) -October 17 (sun), 2010
Venue: Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM]
Patio, Foyer, Central Park
Sound Design & Graphic Design: Takuya Minami (softpad)
Programming: Ken Furudate
Curator: Kazunao Abe (YCAM)
Organized by Yamaguchi City Foundation for Cultural Promotion
In association with Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi City Board of Education
Grants from THE ASAHI SHIMBUN FOUNDATION
Supported by the Agency for Cultural A airs Government of Japan in the
Co-developed with YCAM InterLab
Produced by Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM]
Dear Sir / Madam,
It is our great pleasure to announce “CLOUD FOREST” an exhibition
proposing new forms of environmental creation through a fusion of artistic
expression and technology, at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM].
"artistic environmental spheres" formed by fog, light and sound
Large-scale project unveiled simultaneously in three public spaces in and around YCAM
The upcoming CLOUD FOREST exhibition at the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM] presents examples of newly discovered environmental creation, realized with an "artistic environments" themed fusion of artistic expression and information technology. Currently on show in three different public spaces in and around YCAM will be a large-scale collaborative project featuring "fog sculptures" by Fujiko Nakaya, an artist whose works have gained much attention at various occasions in Japan and overseas, along with the original light and sound art of Shiro Takatani.
These commissioned installations conceived in-residence at YCAM combine artificial fog, sunlight and sound, orchestrating with the help of originally developed devices and responding to changing weather conditions a variety of impressive sceneries. Visitors can experience transformations in their perception as they interact with artworks incorporating information technology while walking in the fog in the patios or surrounding park. While introducing and reevaluating foresighted art and science projects originally presented at the EXPO'70 Osaka, which eventually inspired this new project, the exhibition anticipates the future of environmental creation, "informational spheres" of tomorrow, and possible creative quests through art.
August 7 (sat) 19:00 - 20:00
Venue: Foyer, Patios Admission free
Artists: Fujiko Nakaya, Shiro Takatani, softpad (Takuya Minami, Tomohiro Ueshiba, Hiroshi Toyama) In addition to Fujiko Nakaya and Shiro Takatani, the members of Kyoto-based art/design collective softpad, who took charge of the sound design for this exhibition, participate in a special experimental live performance incorporating the fog, light and sound installations in the patios and foyer.
August 8 (san) 14:00-16:00
Venue: Studio B Admission free
Guests: Fujiko Nakaya, Shiro Takatani　Moderator: Akira Asada
Artists involved in this exhibition appear as special guests in a casual talk session that gives them the opportunity to introduce their works. Moderator will be Akira Asada, a specialist in the field who is familiar with each artist's endeavors to date. While referring to the work of E.A.T. at the 1970 Osaka Expo's Pepsi Pavilion, which inspired this project in the first place, the artists will look back at such trailblazing achievements as Nakaya's "fog sculptures" and David Tudor's soundscapes originally presented at the Expo, and discuss the developments and prospects now, four decades later.
* There will be guided gallery tours offered during the period of the exhibition. Please check the exhibition website for more information on additional event.
― Prospects of art-inspired new environmental creation
Rather than addressing "environmental" issues only from an ecological point of view, this "artistic environmental spheres" themed exhibition focuses on the mutual relationships between natural, social, mental and informational environments. Aiming to provide a stage for such diverse aspects of the subject matter to function as interfaces for each other, CLOUD FOREST pursues a contemporary form of environmental creation triggered off by transformations in human perception. The shifting perceptual experience of interacting with artworks incorporating information technology and YCAM's architectural characteristics makes the visitor aware of spatial transfigurations, and ultimately commands ideas related to "environments" of the future.
"Environment" as an art form
This exhibition is based on a definition of "environment" as a compound of mutually generative, penetrative and reflective areas. While there have been various movements in the past that proposed environments as stages for or components of art, such as land art or earth art, this exhibition aims to explore the creative aspects of media art for possible new forms of "environments". Think of it as an attempt to generate with the help of information technology open environments embracing multiple interlinked, mutually "environmental spheres". In this day and age, the concept of "environments" manifested through spatial transformations is surely going to write its own quiet yet forceful story.
■40 years after the EXPO'70 Osaka: E.A.T. reinterpreted from a contemporary point of view
E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) attracted worldwide attention when the American experimental collective presented their work in the Pepsi Pavilion at the EXPO'70 Osaka. At this huge international event, the group of collaborating artists and scientists presented the astonishing results of their pioneering exploration of the relationship between environment and art, driven by the participating artists' innovative ideas. Considering the 40 years between then and the present day as a fundamental period of transition from the material productivity-based viewpoints of progressive science to invisible information capitalism, this exhibition attempts a critical review of the ideas and accomplishments of E.A.T. By interpreting such forward-thinking approaches of art and science with an eye on contemporary information society and perspectives of environmental creation, we aim to disclose a contemporary form of reality and its new environmental components.
"Environments" emerging out of human perception and networking technology
This exhibition couples the "fog sculptures" of Fujiko Nakaya with the creative ideas of the late David Tudor, who was in charge of interactive sound when Nakaya's works were first introduced at the EXPO'70 Osaka's Pepsi Pavilion. The "fog sculptures" take on a variety of appearances at the main venues in and around YCAM, shown alongside a new installation piece incorporating Tudor's original concept of soundscapes based on environmental reverberation. Altogether, the displays can be considered as a collaborative attempt of new environmental creation, undertaken by Fujiko Nakaya together with the YCAM staff and such post-Expo generation artists as Shiro Takatani. These works utilizing information technology to incorporate in various ways transformations of both natural surroundings and human perception communicate a sensory idea of critical, totally new "spheres of artistic environments".
The exhibition's title, "CLOUD FOREST" is borrowed from the name of a subtropical forestal area that is characterized by a frequent formation of mist about the canopy level. It is a place that can be considered as a peculiar zone of active interpenetration right in the middle between wild nature and the realm of human society.
At the same time, the title is a reference to David Tudor's sound installation/performance piece "Rainforest". Approaching the laws of nature by means of cutting-edge technology, this exhibition pays deep homage also to the innovativeness of the "Island Eye Island Ear" project that Fujiko Nakaya conceived with Jacqueline Monnier back in the 1970s.
"Environmental spheres" in three installations
Patios　　... Interfaces of fog, light and sound
The entirely glass-walled patios - high open spaces that allow wind, rain and sunlight to fall in - are intermediate places combining/connecting the outside (natural environment) with the inside (artificial environment). This exhibition includes large-scale installations involving artificial fog, light (reflected sunlight) and sound, which transform the Center's two patios into interfaces between two different types of environments.
Influenced by the surrounding interior and exterior environments, the artificial fog that is emitted in varying intervals from multiple directions forms convections of various modes and configurations. In addition, a special mirror device is used to redirect sunbeams into the fog. As optical effects will vary significantly according to the fog's configuration, meteorological conditions, and the position of the sun, the displays will continue to take on different appearances depending on the time, position and angle. As locations, sizes, and positions of installed apparatus are different in both patios, visitors can appreciate two completely different installations. Furthermore, special sound systems installed inside the exhibition spaces allows visitors to perceive the soundscapes locally while walking through the fog. Also visible from outside the glass walls are subtle motions of fog and light that one normally doesn't see in the open nature.
Foyer　　... Soundscape defined by an intense mixture of sound and light
Exhibited in the foyer, a place flooded with natural light from the patios on both sides, is Shiro Takatani's large-scale installation based on reflections of sound and light [Sound Designed by Takuya Minami (softpad)]. Nine specially built sonic devices - two-meter-high rotary square poles fitted with four superdirective speakers each - are arranged in a grid pattern on the floor in the center of the exhibition space. While the poles rotate at varying speed, all of the 36 speakers emit alternately synchronous and asynchronous superdirective sounds to weave complex sonic carpets. Next to field recordings of natural environmental sounds, the installation uses audio sources prepared by David Tudor for the EXPO'70 Osaka. These components will form a densely complex acoustic environment while echoing in complicated patterns from the venue's walls and stairs. Visitors can look forward to enjoying an absolutely unique spatial experience in a setting bathed in a mix of artificial and natural light.
Central Park　　...Fog sculptures" flowing and merging with the environment
Fujiko Nakaya's "fog sculptures" are exhibited in wide outdoor spaces. Like in the patios, clouds of artificial fog will be generated also in the central park in front of YCAM. Due to rapidly changing wind conditions, here the fog clusters will move in instantaneously shifting patterns. While marveling at these massive formations of fog quite different from the sceneries in the patios, the visitor can witness how these "fog sculptures" flow and merge with the environment.
* Also on display are photographs and video footage of previous works related to this exhibition (Fujiko Nakaya & David Tudor, EXPO'70 Osaka "Pepsi Pavilion", etc.)
Organized by Yamaguchi City Foundation for Cultural Promotion
In association with Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi City Board of Education
Grants from THE ASAHI SHIMBUN FOUNDATION
Supported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs Government of Japan in the fiscal 2010
Co-developed with YCAM InterLab
Produced by Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM]
Sound Design & Graphic Design Takuya Minami (softpad)
Programming: Ken Furudate
Curator: Kazunao Abe (YCAM)
Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media
Photos top to bottom
Fujiko Nakaya "Fog Sculpture #47773" Pepsi Pavilion Commissioned by Experiments in Art and Technology (EXPO' 70, Osaka, Japan 1970) photo: ©Takeyoshi Tanuma
"Island Eye Island Ear" Project by Experiments in Art & Technology (Knavelskar Island, Sweden 1974) photo：Fujiko Nakaya
Fujiko Nakaya "GREENLAND GLACIAL MORAINE GARDEN" (Nakaya Ukichiro Museum of Snow and Ice,Kaga City, Japan 1994) 　photo：Rokuro Yoshida
“CLOUD FOREST”［Central Park］（YCAM 2010）
“CLOUD FOREST”［Patio］（YCAM 2010）
Lord of the Drone: Pandit Pran Nath and the American Underground
By Alexander Keefe
First comes the drone of the sci-fi supercharged tamburas, fluxing and oscillating, too high up in the mix for the bureaucrats and professors at All India Radio, way too high. It’s like the rush of a marsh on a midsummer night with a million crickets, or the howling wind stirring the power lines outside a cabin in backwoods Idaho, or the hushed roar of the stream in front of a hermit’s cave above Dehradun: see the blue-throated god lying there, recumbent and still, his eyes shut, the dangerous corpse of the Overlord waiting for the dancing feet of his bloody, love-mad consort.
This was the sound La Monte Young heard the first time he heard any music from India, Ali Akbar Khan’s 1955 LP Morning and Evening Ragas, in a Music City Records promo-spot on the radio in Los Angeles. Young drove over, bought the record, and brought it back to his grandmother’s house, where he locked himself in his room and listened as the musicians were introduced by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, along with their instruments — this is Mr. Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, this is Mr. Chatur Lal on tabla, and this is the third instrument, the tambura, played by Mr. Gor. The sound that follows this final introduction lasts only a few seconds on the recording, but it had a dramatic impact on the young composer, who heard in it the basis for a music built around sustained tones and a sublimated, slowed-down rhythmic pulse.
If minimalist music as we know it was in some sense an emanation from that first tambura on the radio, it seems safe to say that it was another tambura that midwifed the birth of its more intimate, disparate heirs. Pandit Pran Nath’s tambura was louder, higher, and harder; it hits you deep in the body with its synesthetic sine wave vibrations and cascading overtones. Hear the world poised at the brink of some radical unfolding, the macrocosm in a bare moment, the maximum minimum, the music of another set of spheres. You haven’t heard the tamburas sing this song before because Pandit Pran Nath was a lifelong student and devotee of these incredible machines’ unearthly sound, adding a special finish of his own fashioning to their resonant lower gourds and tuning them up for hours until they turned into the lightningblack curtains and magenta-midnight light for the Malkauns, a raga with a special place in his repertoire.
It isn’t just the quality of the drone that distinguishes Pandit Pran Nath’s performance of the Malkauns, recorded at midnight in a studio in Soho in 1976. What really stands out in this recording — identified by his former student Henry Flynt as one of the two or three most important ever made — is his voice, stony and austere, with a subterranean intensity. When he hits the tonic note — what in Indian music is called the shadaja — and then slides it slowly, microtonally, downward, you can feel it inside your chest, an impossible emotion somewhere between awe, erotic desire, and annihilation. Some ragas are light-footed maidens dancing through springtime, at play on swings in the flowered groves along the Yamuna riverbank; Pandit Pran Nath’s are cremation grounds, the blue-black color of smoke rising softly from the smoldering log of a sadhu’s fire, the moon on the mountainside.
A musicologist will tell you that a raga is a specific mode, a series of notes that serve as the basis for improvisation, but Pandit Pran Nath and his students would tell you something else, that a raga is a living soul the performer invokes like a celestial, numinous presence moving behind and between the notes, a cosmic teacher that the performer, if he is successful, embodies and transmits, dissolving the boundaries between singer, listener, and song. Each raga comes assigned to a certain time of day, but many artists ignore them in performance, regarding the designations as conventional and dispensable; Pandit Pran Nath only sang midnight songs at midnight. The Malkauns raga is one such, a druggy pentatonic nocturne that some superstitious musicians refuse to play on the grounds that it attracts demons; it works like a powerful narcotic, replacing clock time with another temporality altogether. Do not attempt to operate a motor vehicle under its influence. Put on the recording from 1976 and prepare to lie down on something soft: those four simple syllables Pran Nath sings — go vin da ram — are the name of God.
I first came across the name of Pandit Pran Nath after listening to a recording by La Monte Young and his partner, the artist Marian Zazeela. Often referred to as “the black record” because of Zazeela’s dark kaleidoscopic cover design, it was released in 1969 in a limited edition of two thousand by the Munichbased arts impresario Heiner Friedrich on his Edition X label. The LP quickly became a founding document of the avant-garde underground, a scriptural touchstone for noise music, as well as a cult legend in post-minimalist psychedelia and sound art. Side two comprises “23 VIII 64 2:50:45 – 3:11AM The Volga Delta From Studies In The Bowed Disc,” an extended, highly abstract noise piece generated by Young and Zazeela with a gong given to them by the sculptor Robert Morris. But what caught my ear was “31 VII 69 10:26 – 10:49PM Munich From Map Of 49’s Dream The Two Systems Of Eleven Sets Of Galactic Intervals Ornamental Lightyears Tracery,” which takes up the entirety of side one. The track, recorded in Friedrich’s gallery in Munich in 1969, starts in media res, with two voices — Young’s and Zazeela’s — keening and pushing against each other, sliding up and down against an electronically generated sine-wave drone.
It immediately reminded me of North Indian classical music: Zazeela’s vocal accompaniment quavering slightly alongside the sine wave; Young’s reedy, sliding modal lines. The tone was so mysterious and shifting — especially at the lower end of his range, Young’s voice sounds alien — and yet somehow wrenchingly human with intakes of breath, tiny imperfections, audible effort. I started to feel drugged and overwhelmed, and roughly handled, plied with disturbing visions and physical effects. The music was so serious, so dark and intensely somatic, so utterly forbidding, with no nods or winks, no toeholds; you either laughed off the black record and turned away, or you came away changed.
It didn’t fail to occur to me that what I’d heard might have been the product of some gross act of appropriation, but it just seemed so odd, so disinterested in pleasing me or anyone else. If this was appropriation, its motives were obscure. Then I learned about La Monte Young’s relationship with Pran Nath.
Pandit Pran Nath arrived in New York in 1970 after years of struggling to survive as a vocal instructor in Delhi, and soon established himself as a key figure in the downtown underground music scene. If the influence of Ravi Shankar expressed itself in ersatz sitar-lite solos and bubblegum neo- Orientalist psych-pop beloved by millions, Pran Nath’s took the opposite course, targeting tiny circles of elite connoisseurs — rock snobs of the highest order, drone junkies, and white sadhus. What resulted were life-defining metaphysical commitments and electro-shamanic experiences of aesthetic rapture. He was there, like a force field, at the founding of some of the contemporary art world’s most revered institutions, including the Dia Art Foundation and The Kitchen, with a roster of students and devotees that reads like a who’s who of the American experimental fringe, including the progenitors of drone-rock, post-minimalism, No Wave, world music, and ambient. He reinvented the Indian gurukul, a centuries-old pedagogical institution, for a new era, positioning his practice as an Indian singer squarely within the most avant-garde corner of the American avant-garde. For all this, he’s disappeared from the history of Indian contemporary art, as well as the history of Indian music. Indeed, he barely registers in our contemporary accounts of the development of music and sound art in the 1970s and 80s. All narratives are based around exclusions, of course, but Pran Nath seems to have found a way to be excluded from every single one.
Untangling fact from legend in Pran Nath’s biography is as difficult as untangling the teacher from the student who tells the story. Born in Lahore in 1918 to a wealthy Hindu family, he is said to have run away from home at age thirteen to live in the house of a singer named Abdul Wahid Khan, first as a servant, then as a student. Khan was a reclusive and Sufi-minded ustaad, or master, in one of North India’s gharanas, extended family-based institutions something like musicians’ guilds that combined pedagogy, stylistic peculiarity, and performance. Abdul Wahid Khan’s was called Kirana, taking its name from a small town near Delhi where a legendary singer-saint named Gopal Nayak had settled some eight centuries ago. According to gharana lore, the Sultan of Delhi had taken Nayak, the finest musician of his age, in tribute after the sacking of the town of Devgiri, along with elephants loaded with precious jewels and gold. Nayak, then, was the first link in a continuous chain of performers that carried his deeply spiritual performance style unchanged into the present day.
In fact, this insistence on the “living link” was as much a product of modern anxieties as it was an objective assessment of musical pasts. Cultural nationalists developed a revisionist historical narrative that sought to minimize the authority of the gharanas, casting them as ignorant and illiterate remnants of a once great and glorious “classical” (read, “ancient Hindu”) tradition. The project of proto-nationalist musicology was framed as one of a grand recovery of a lost essence, and the formidable, secretive, and predominantly Muslim ustaads — often steeped in esoteric and heterodox religious beliefs — were seen, at best, as impediments to that project. Reformists, many of them English-educated colonial elites, were easily scandalized by practices and institutions that failed to conform to their evolving notions of “authentic” Indian culture, and for some of them, the gharanas were embarrassingly visible reminders of India’s incoherent medievalism. Increasingly, Hindustani musicians were expected to shoulder the burden of representing not only their own gharana, but the putative Indian nation as well.
Understanding the politics of classicism and revival in twentieth-century Indian music is essential for mapping Pran Nath’s impact on the American avant-garde. To his students in New York, he was the very embodiment of the timeless and unchanging voice of antiquity; this was a key part of his appeal. But his persona and story — presented by his disciples and improved upon by enthusiastic music critics and promoters — was very much a legacy of India’s early twentieth-century culture wars. In a milieu that placed musicologists and musicians in opposing camps, laying exclusive claim to “the origin” was the ultimate trump card. The most successful of the old-school ustaads carved out a space for themselves by premising their authority on performance rather than transcription — by taking the musicologists’ dismissive label “illiterate” and turning it into a badge of authenticity. Real Indian music, they suggested, was learned by ear, through a process of initiation, repetition, and memorization. Real Indian scales escaped the musicologists’ staff notation, just as real singers always exceeded the rubrics of Western-derived musicological modernity.
In the case of Pandit Pran Nath’s Kirana gharana, this intractable resistance to academia and thorny insistence on the primacy of orality found its natural complement in a style of singing that represented Hindustani vocal music at its most ethereal, solemn, and majestic, focused almost entirely on pitch rather than rhythm, on solitary meditative aesthetic experiences rather than entertainment — on the slow and often unmeasured introductory alap section of a raga, rather than the crowdpleasing virtuosity of the fast drut. At some point in the early 1940s, Pran Nath pushed this system of musical values to its logical limit. He took up residence at Tapkeshwar, a cave-temple of Shiva near Dehradun, and lived there as an ascetic for five years. According to his students, much of that time was spent singing a single note, the shadaja, accompanied by the sound of the stream that rushed past his hermit’s cell. The story goes that in the late 1940s, his old teacher, near death, tracked him down at Tapkeshwar and beseeched him to abandon the ascetic life, to take a family and teach the Kirana style. A newly independent India was being born, the subcontinent divided. Pran Nath came down from the mountains.
But his passage was a bumpy one: the picture that emerges of his life in the New Delhi of the 1950s and 60s is one of a recalcitrant and disaffected performer, unhappy with the constraints of university teaching and disgusted by the musical trends taking shape around him. The memoirs of Sheila Dhar, his student at the time, depict Pran Nath before his American reinvention: an immensely talented but eccentric outsider, impoverished and unpractical, utterly out of step with the times. The new nation had institutionalized a certain idea of “classical Indian music,” promulgated by the state-run All India Radio and musicology departments of universities, but Pran Nath either could not or would not make the leap. It must have come as a relief to him when a new type of student started trickling into Delhi in the mid- 1960s, seekers without the usual baggage, looking for someone to revere. These Westerners found a stubborn middle-aged man with a limited but oracular command of English, a voice of astonishing power, and an otherworldly mien. Pandit Pran Nath became gurujee, and then a few years later he was gone, leaving behind an Indian cultural scene increasingly hostile to a performer of such suspect religious leanings — he was a devotee of the Chishti Sufi saints, as well as a Nada yogi and mystic — not to mention such stubbornly contrarian tastes.
Many in New York first heard the name of Pandit Pran Nath in 1970, in an April issue of The Village Voice, in an article written by Young. “Nadam brahmam,” it opens in Sanskrit, “Sound is God. I am that sound that is God.” The article introduced Pran Nath as a singer-saint, recounting his background and eventual retreat to the mountains where, at “the age of 28 Pran Nath chose to become a naked singing saint, or naga, and so for five years he sat, clothed only in ashes, singing for God.” This is the most powerful image Young leaves with the reader, that of the naked yogi, the wandering Sufi singer, whose absolute control over pitch and tone constituted a kind of esoteric science, a bridge between the singing of the Vedic gods at the origin of time and the cosmic, vibrational physics and neurochemistry of the future-shocked freaks. It was perfectly in line with the shifting mood downtown. Gone was the cool Zen reserve and rational skepticism of Cage and Stockhausen: Truth had been found, God had been located, and the counter- Enlightenment had begun, with Pandit Pran Nath as its spiritual guide and Young as his chief apostle.
It was the first glimpse of an unusual bond between Pran Nath and a man who, by the mid- 60s, was already being hailed as the definitive American composer of the post-Cage era. Young was the father of minimalism, an enfant terrible of the Fluxus movement and one of its earliest escapees; with his Theatre of Eternal Music he had already virtually invented avant-rock, blowing circular modal saxophone lines over the droning accompaniment of John Cale, Tony Conrad, and the frenzied Luciferian pulse of Angus MacLise’s hand drums. In the 60s multimedia underground, where boundaries between film, music, sculpture, and happening were porous at best, the loft he shared with Marian Zazeela was a central node in the network that included artists like Walter De Maria, Robert Morris, and Yoko Ono, and musicians like Terry Riley and Henry Flynt. It was a scene where the high modernism of the 50s was being challenged by a populist performance idiom somewhere between concert and ritual: the Theatre of Eternal Music began playing before the audience arrived and finished after they left, consciousness-altering improvisations that were equal parts hillbilly, dervish, and jazzman. Even John Cage was suddenly square, out of step with a social mood shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and Bo Diddley, the Vietnam War and the assassination of JFK. La Monte Young was at the center of this shift when he met Pandit Pran Nath.
In the grand tradition of American whiteman music-swindles, the composer might have just ripped off his style and moved on. Instead something unexpected happened: Young and Zazeela took formal initiation as his students and disciples, beginning a twenty-six-year relationship that would only end — or, as they might say, shift registers — with Pandit Pran Nath’s death in 1996. The really radical impact of this relationship wasn’t in the move away from the piano keyboard scales of the Western tradition toward South Asian microtones and modes, nor in the embrace of improvisation: these were all already happening in an American avant-garde pushing away from European tradition, away from the sterility of staff notation and equal temperament. The really radical break was Young’s emblematic subordination of himself to a teacher, in the fullest possible sense. This was a confrontation with Eurocentric modernity that went far beyond how a piano was tuned or what drugs to take or where to perform; it was a total rejection of a certain way of thinking about personhood, about the role of art, about knowledge itself. Pran Nath became the guru to a generation of American underground art makers who found it in themselves to stick it to the professors and the gallerists and declare themselves important, to experiment outside the bounds, to estrange themselves into other worlds where old distinctions didn’t matter.
Of course, their art changed, too. Jon Hassell practiced ragas on his trumpet for three years sitting by Pran Nath’s side, developing an electronics-enriched cosmopolitan sound without which the “world music” that followed would be inconceivable. Rhys Chatham did sound for Young and Pran Nath while assembling noisy sound installations of his own and curating the first music series held at The Kitchen. Yoshi Wada transformed himself from Fluxus prankster to mega-drone shaman. Henry Flynt crafted a dissident strand of raga-infused hillbilly freak-folk. Don Cherry went mystical. Terry Riley, Young, and Zazeela became like a wandering band of American sadhus, dressed in traditional Indian clothes, performing their own compositions and accompanying Pandit Pran Nath on travels to India and beyond, leaving scratched heads and blown minds on more than one continent.
Pandit Pran Nath’s music changed, too, though in less obvious ways. In a sense any changes in his style had to be less obvious: the role he had created for himself on the American scene was, after all, as the bearer of a timeless revelation. Change, for him, could only be characterized as a kind of platonic unforgetting, a return to divine origins. The invisibility of his innovations are, then, a testament to the success of his art; his new audience and entourage gave him the freedom to take his already unusually slow and severe style of singing and pare it down even further. His insistence on performing ragas at their appropriate times of day became, rather than a simple matter of tradition (as it was and is for many Indian performers), the parameters for ritual happenings. In his concerts, Hindustani vocal music itself, performed beneath op-art light installations in cutting-edge galleries and in Soho lofts, became a kind of post-minimalist liturgy, an aesthetic experience of shared, visionary transcendence that was, at the same time, deeply lodged in the bodies of the listeners and performer. It was ancient and exotic and Other; it was spaceage and downtown and Ours.
Describing music with words is inherently difficult, perhaps even more so in the case of a music like Pran Nath’s — so minimal and non-discursive, so profoundly alien to a Western ear — but it is essential to at least try and convey something of its intense charismatic presence. Without that, it would be hard to understand how this uncompromising and eccentric singer, who had traveled so many unlikely roads, became, in 1979, the spiritual touchstone and centerpiece of an art-installation in Soho that was, on the level of its scale and ambition and funding, a close cousin to Donald Judd’s Marfa Project, James Turrell’s Roden Crater, and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dia-funded Dream House, located from 1979 to 1985 in the old Mercantile Exchange Building at 6 Harrison Street, was set up to be the laboratory for a fringe-science of sound, exhaustively archived and recorded with the best possible equipment, its upstairs rooms pulsing with Young’s incessant electronic sine waves, lit by Zazeela’s magenta op-art neon tubes and calligraphic fantasia. What was once the trading floor became the venue for five-hour performances of Young’s microtonal magnum opus, The Well- Tuned Piano; downtown heads would come to lie or sit in the lotus position on a thick shag carpet, dreaming to Pandit Nath’s cosmic drone.
The Dream House was emblematic of the early days of the Dia Foundation under Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil, who used her fortune to fund the financially impossible mega-projects of solitary geniuses, to realize mad hermetic visions that combined minimal means with maximal scale. Like other early Dia projects, the Dream House positioned itself as the structure for a transcendent, visionary experience; Pran Nath’s voice found its partner in the elemental, aerial physics of Turrell’s volcanic Hopi neo-kiva. The idea was to push the listener inward, inside the earth, inside the body and self, to experience art as a means of flight, as a private experience of aesthetic rapture and embodied, emotional ecstasy. In its explicitly metaphysical intentions, the Dream House was perhaps the paradigmatic early Dia project. “Sound is God,” Young had declared, and this was its temple. When the first phase of the Dia Foundation began to fall apart, and a coup replaced Friedrich and De Menil with a more business-minded board of directors, the Dream House was among the first of the great Dia projects to be shuttered and spun off, its building sold, its inhabitants left to fend for themselves.
The collapse of Dia funding was unsurprising to cynical onlookers, who saw Young and Zazeela’s project as a grand folly, their clothes as an affectation, and their spiritual guide and mentor as little more than a “raga teacher.” Pran Nath relocated to the West Coast, where he continued to teach and practice despite declining health. Young and Zazeela moved back into their old loft at 275 Church Street, opening a scaled-down version of the Dream House that still exists today, along with the Kirana Center for Indian Classical Music. Thirteen years after Pran Nath’s death, they remain committed disciples, making available the precious few publicly released recordings of their teacher at the height of his powers — including Midnight: Raga Malkauns, mentioned above — and hosting annual concerts and listening parties in his memory. At the heart of this story is the remarkable and stubborn fact of their guru-bhakti — their absolute, devotional discipleship. It was — and remains — an astonishing act of surrender, and provided Pran Nath, an eccentric and until then somewhat obscure Indian outsider, with a platform to extend a powerful influence over the American underground art scene at a formative moment.
During an era when, in India, self-consciously “classical” musicians were expected to democratize their idiom and adhere to purificatory standards set by a rigidly hierarchical system of statesponsorship, Pandit Pran Nath forged an alternative, cosmopolitan model for the future of South Asian traditional music, one focused on advanced sound technologies, spiritualized sensibilities, and a circle of elite connoisseurs, neo-nawabs, and princesses of the underground, holding strange court in a new world. He was a nomadic innovator, an idiosyncratic original, and the godfather of drone; and he’s been written out of the history of Indian contemporary art and music, first by nationalist historians and critics who didn’t know where to place him, and now, by a contemporary commercial scene that scarcely knows his name. But the South Asian art world is changing quickly these days, increasingly focused on new media and electronic arts, on unpredictable collisions between national and global cultural flows, and on manipulations of identity. Perhaps the time is right to sift through the archives again and look harder for the Pran Naths hidden there, lost or hidden lineaments of the avant-garde and the Outside. Pran Nath means “Lord of the life-breath” in Sanskrit — his destiny, and a promise.
Lord of the Drone: Pandit Pran Nath and the American Underground by Alexander Keefe has been published in Bidoun Magazine / Art and Culture from the Middle East.
This issue of Bidoun is now available from the MELA Store for $13 / $10 MELA Members: http://melafoundation.org/LYrecscat.html
and is also posted online:
Alexander Keefe weaves his knowledge of the history of Indian classical music with the remarkable tale of the life of Pandit Pran Nath, his voyage to the West and his profound influence on La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley and other artists and musicians working in the '60s and '70s multimedia underground. A beautiful article including several rare archival photographs, Keefe's insightful essay presents a uniquely contemporary perspective on this great Hindustani master vocalist.
Several segments are excerpted below:
...Each raga comes assigned to a certain time of day, but many artists ignore them in performance, regarding the designations as conventional and dispensable; Pandit Pran Nath only sang midnight songs at midnight. The Malkauns raga is one such, a druggy pentatonic nocturne that some superstitious musicians refuse to play on the grounds that it attracts demons; it works like a powerful narcotic, replacing clock time with another temporality altogether. Do not attempt to operate a motor vehicle under its influence. Put on the recording from 1976 and prepare to lie down on something soft: those four simple syllables Pran Nath sings — go vin da ram — are the name of God.
...In the case of Pandit Pran Nath’s Kirana gharana, this intractable resistance to academia and thorny insistence on the primacy of orality found its natural complement in a style of singing that represented Hindustani vocal music at its most ethereal, solemn, and majestic, focused almost entirely on pitch rather than rhythm, on solitary meditative aesthetic experiences rather than entertainment — on the slow and often unmeasured introductory alap section of a raga, rather than the crowdpleasing virtuosity of the fast drut.
...He was a nomadic innovator, an idiosyncratic original, and the godfather of drone; and he’s been written out of the history of Indian contemporary art and music, first by nationalist historians and critics who didn’t know where to place him, and now, by a contemporary commercial scene that scarcely knows his name. But the South Asian art world is changing quickly these days, increasingly focused on new media and electronic arts, on unpredictable collisions between national and global cultural flows, and on manipulations of identity. Perhaps the time is right to sift through the archives again and look harder for the Pran Naths hidden there, lost or hidden lineaments of the avant-garde and the Outside. Pran Nath means “Lord of the life-breath” in Sanskrit — his destiny, and a promise.
Special Reduced Price - 2-CD Set Now Only $24
In honor of Pandit Pran Nath's 91st Birthday and thanks to 3rd edition print savings we can now offer Just Dreams 2-CD set of Raga Malkauns for only $24 - a twelve dollar price reduction from the original $36 price!
Pandit Pran Nath: Midnight / Raga Malkauns: New 2-CD commercial release from Just Dreams, Inc. Two full-CD recordings of Raga Malkauns by Pandit Pran Nath, accompanied by full texts of the vocal compositions presented in Devanagri script, phonetic English, word-by-word translation, and poetic interpretation by Sri Karunamayee, a longtime senior disciple of the Master. (JD 003) 2-CD set.
Photos, top to bottom:
Pandit Pran Nath, San Francisco 1977. Photo: B & B Xolote.
Copyright © The Pandit Pran Nath Musical Composition Trust
Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan Sahib.
© Copyright The Pandit Pran Nath Musical Composition Trust
Ragas Yaman Kalyan and Punjabi Berva LP.
Shandar Disques: Paris, France, 1971
“To Piero, Sound is God, Pandit Pran Nath, 17 June 77”: signed photograph from performance in Rome. Courtesy Pieralfonso Longo
Article taken from bidoun.com
Marco Fusinato ‘Ambianxe’ LP
The Spring Press. SP09 .
"Live recordings. Two sets over two nights at SuperDeluxe Tokyo, 2010. Limited edition of 250 copies on 180 gram virgin black vinyl".
25 July 2010
Maximum Arousal & SuperDeluxe Tokyo Present:
HAIR STYLISTICS/THE MENSTRUATION SISTERS/MARCO FUSINATO
Level 2, Curtin House
252 Swanston Street
Tickets $15.00 full / $12.00 concession
All Tomorrow's Parties and The Blackened Music Series Presents
SUNN O))) and BORIS Present ALTAR
with special guests
JESSE SYKES AND THE SWEET HEREAFTER
September 7 2010
The Brooklyn Masonic Temple
317 Clermont Avenue at Lafayette
The Loudest Room in New York
Buy tickets here: http://www.ticketweb.com/t3/sale/SaleEventDetail?dispatch=loadSelectionData&eventId=2519615
ALTAR is a collaboration between Sunn 0))) and Boris that is a result of both bands conceptualizing, writing and recording together as one entity. There are elements of each group's trademark sound but true to each group's progressive and experimental aspects, ALTAR moves into a completely new dimension. This is the first NYC performance of ALTAR.
BXI is the collaboration between Boris and Ian Astbury. Southern Lord will release the debut recordings by this group in August 2010. This finely-crafted four-song release, simply entitled BXI, was tracked and mixed in Tokyo in late April. Astburys' iconic vocals are a perfect match for Boris’s raw and emotive songwriting style. This is the first U.S. performance of BXI.
Listen closely to Jesse Sykes's stark descriptions of isolation, sometimes-swaggering toughness, fragile human emotion, and the possibilities of love, and you'll hear something that perfectly, tenderly, and surprisingly captures the feel of the 21st century so far.
ALTAR image by Simon Fowler
ALTAR photo by WT Nelson
BXI photo by Miki Matsushima
Jesse Sykes photo by Christine Taylor
ELÍN HANSDÓTTIR | Trace
Opening Friday, July 9th, 6-9pm | Opnun föstudaginn 9. júlí kl. 18-21
i8 Gallery is pleased to present its first solo exhibition of work by Elín Hansdóttir.
Just as a line is a tracing of a point, a plane the tracing of a line and a space the tracing of a plane, a phenomenon in space is the tracing of time. Time appears to be in motion, because we are hardly able to experience the past, present and future as a continuum.
The American choreographer Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) became world-renowned for introducing a revolutionary dance. In the so called Serpentine dance, she produced an image on stage which was non-representational - instead of showing the dancer "dance", she conjured up the tracing of the kinetic energy which the body instigates, just as a draughtsman, when he puts a point in motion to create a line.
In Trace, Hansdóttir not only alludes to Fuller's ideas, but equally to the Lumière brothers movie clip of her Serpentine dance, in her own research on how energy disperses movement in time and space.
Hansdóttir has divided the exhibition space with a leporello wall. In the front, she exhibits photographs which reveal a certain motion in time. What the images have in common is how they reveal the eternal flux of a metamorphosing form, which otherwise (without the motions of the body) would simply remain static.
Mirrors on the leporello wall divide the viewers movements into separate and distinct moments as they walk past, as in a film. A 16mm film is projected through the wall, by means of two mirrors that transport the image from the front to the rear space, creating a reference to the subject's journey in the filming process, when the viewer is allowed to see in one place that which has happened in another.
The film is the starting point of Hansdóttir's investigation, the accompanying sound, the wall and the photographs being either part of the process or its aftermath. In actual fact, it is the traces themselves which the process as a whole has left behind in time and space, which is of prime importance, whether it be from a body, machine or a light source.
Elín Hansdóttir (b. 1980) lives and works in Berlin. Her work is often based on spare architectural elements creating self-contained worlds that seem to operate under their own set of rules. Elín has made numerous site-specific installations for exhibitions such as Art against Architecture, National Gallery of Iceland; The International Lightbiennale, Ruhr, Germany; Rethink the Implicit, Den Frie Udstillingsbygning, Copenhagen and for Frieze Projects, London 2007.
For further information please contact Íris Stefánsdóttir on +354 551 3666 or email@example.com
Elín's show is part of Villa Reykjavik. www.villareykjavik.com
i8 Gallery | Tryggvagata 16 | Reykjavík | Iceland | Tel: +354 551 3666 | www.i8.is | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sound and fury:
The politics of noise in a loud society
By Garret Keizer
In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamour. Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.
–The Epic of Gilgamesh
In this way begin the earliest written version of the Great Flood myth, which reappears in altered form more than a thousand years later as the biblical story of Noah and the Ark. The Sumerian origins of the Gilgamesh epic may help to explain why the gods are so incensed. Sumeria is generally considered the world’s first civilization; that is, the first place where human beings create a distinctly urban society. It seems that by at least the third millennium B.C.E. the world has begun to grow noisy, at least for those living in the mud-brick cities of the Fertile Crescent, the first people on earth to hear the shake, rattle, and roll of turning wheels. The city that never sleeps is born here, memorialized in a story about angry gods who cannot sleep either. The twenty-first-century tenant who some nights would like to strangle his noisy neighbor lives no more than a story up from some literate Mesopotamian who apparently imagined drowning his.
Human noise is political from its inception, not only because it emerges with the polis–that artificial forest where the tree that falls always makes a sound–but also because it lends itself so well to political conflict. Noise is both an objective and a subjective phenomenon: it comprises both common and uncommon ground. On the one hand, a decibel is a decibel is a decibel. The fact that the human ear can endure about two continuous hours of a power drill but only thirty minutes of a typical video arcade before sustaining permanent hearing loss and the related fact that eighty-year-old Sudanese villagers hear better than thirty-year-old Americans are just that: facts. On the other hand, the reasons why an airport will affect its neighbors in different ways, leaving some depressed or hypertensive and others relatively unfazed, are as variable and invisible as sound itself. Even the gods who confer with Enlil are not of the same party on the noise issue. At least one of them objects to eliminating human commotion at its source, and consequently a chosen few are able to step blinking from the ark into a temporarily quieter world.
By the time we get to the monotheistic universe of Genesis, the flooding of the earth is presented as the result of God’s moral indignation. Wickedness, not noisiness, is what starts the rain. Yet I can think of few symbols more suited to wickedness than noise, usually defined as “unwanted sound”–like defining an assault as “unwanted attention.” Loud noise hates nature and nurture alike. Certain species of birds fail to learn their mating songs, and therefore to reproduce, in noisy environments; as early as 1975, researcher Arline Bronzaft found that children on the train-track side of a New York public school were lagging a year behind their classmates on the other side of the building in learning to read. Even relatively low levels of noise can interfere with conversation (at 55 to 60 decibels); the price of making ourselves heard is a loss of nuance, inflection, vocal stamina–in every sense a “loss of voice.” Noise has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, gastrointestinal disorders,headaches, fatigue, insomnia–in short, to nearly every known by-product of stress. (Anti-stress medications are actually tested by exposing experimental subjects to loud sounds.) Noise deafens us, aurally and there is strong evidence to suggest-morally as well. People subjected to high levels of noise are less likely to assist strangers in difficulty, less likely to recommend raises for workers, more likely to administer electric shocks to other human subjects.
Noise speaks danger; it both threatens and invites aggression. It triggers the physiological chemistry of the “fight-or-flight” response. Before we were even human, noise signaled the approach of the carnivore, of lightning and lava. More recently it became the alarm of invasion, first of the barbarian outside the gates and increasingly of the barbarian within. The audio-terrorist turns into decibels the dynamics of every relationship based on unrequited power: My noise can penetrate your quiet, but your quiet can never penetrate my noise. “My noise is my right” means “Your ear is my hole.”
To this little rant of mine the Roman philosopher Seneca offers a censorious tut-tut. “I cannot for the life of me see that quiet is as necessary to a person who has shut himself away to do some studying as it is usually thought to be. Here am I with a babel of noise going on all about me.” He is living over a bathhouse; the noises rising from downstairs include all manner of “grunting,” “hissing,” and “pummeling,” as well as “the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence…” Seneca boasts that he takes “no more notice [of] all this roar than… of waves or falling water.” To be distracted by noise, he claims, is to succumb to one’s own inner disquiet. I believe him, somewhat. But let us credit Seneca’s stoicism for enduring the 50 decibels of a very loud hiss and estimate the cry of the hair remover at, say, 65 decibels, 75 if he has a very loud voice. Today Seneca would be living over a gym where the amplified music might be cranked to 100 decibels in order to produce the adrenaline rush that keeps the iron pumping. (And for every increase of 10 decibels, the volume of sound doubles.) If Seneca were one of the quarter million New Yorkers living within 100 yards of an elevated train track, he might be able to test his fortitude with a screech of 115 decibels, as measured at the front step of his apartment building. At these levels philosophical detachment is almost a joke. What do you call a stoic who lives near the el? Deaf.
City ordinances aimed at noise date roughly from Seneca’s time; Caesar is said to have banned nighttime chariot riding from the streets of Rome. Fiorello La Guardia tried to outlaw organ grinders; New Yorkers, to their lasting credit, told him to back off. Noise not only confers power; it is silenced by power. As anti-noise activists are quick to point out, the traditional noise ordinance has usually been aimed at and enforced against the individual. The kid with the boom box is one thing; the Federal Aviation Administration, which virtually regulates itself, is quite another. Indeed, the most effective noise ordinances I’ve found were gag agreements imposed as “compromises” on the critics of noise-making companies: in exchange for ninety “mufflered days” at the auto racetrack, your citizens’ group will hereby withdraw its litigation; in exchange for an offer to purchase your soon-to-be-worthless house, you agree not to oppose the permit application of our soon-to-be-opened quarry. Ronald Reagan’s shutting down of the Office of Noise Abatement and Control in 1982 and the failure of any president since to reopen it may go down as the most effective “noise ordinance” in American history. At the time there were 1,100 local and state programs monitoring noise; now there are about 20. Has anybody ever said, “Turn that damn thing off!” with greater success? One should always be wary, then, of equating quiet and silence. In the politics of quiet and noise, silence sides with the winner.
“I shall shortly be moving elsewhere,” Seneca writes at the end of his essay on noise. “Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to…” Then, as now, stoic resignation was good, but an aggressive realtor was even better. From the first wheel that rattled through the streets of Sumer, the story of noise has always been tied to the story of human mobility–not least of all in America, arguably the world’s first nomadic civilization. If there are any fundamental principles to the relationship between noise and mobility, I can discern at least two. The first and simplest goes like this: People move to escape noise, and by moving they always find it.
Forty years ago the poet Galway Kinnell came to northeastern Vermont looking for “a house with a view at the end of a long dirt road” that he could buy for $800. Outside the somewhat haggard village of Sheffield he found what he was looking for, or the closest approximation: a fallen-in farmhouse with broken windows and missing doors, which during Kinnell’s earliest visits he shared with a pair of porcupines and a weasel. “Living out of reach of human activity,” close to wild animals but within hearing of “the accent and pleasure of words, the love of getting things right” that Kinnell says “was more true of old-time Vermonters than any other people I know,” the poet also found the materials for his work. And he found quiet, measurably more quiet on a summer evening than the sound of a human whisper, enough to live what he refers to as “an objectification… of my inner life.” Of course, the danger in objectifying your inner life is that someone might drive a bulldozer over your heart.
The bulldozer arrived two years ago to clear-cut a nearby tract of land for the site of a South African-owned granite quarry. For many in town the appearance of the South Africans in Sheffield held a promise of jobs, tax revenues, and royalties, perhaps a less obscure place on the map; Kinnell had a different view. Fearful of what the newcomers might do to the landscape and suspicious of what they might have done to other landscapes and villages beforehand, he and a handful of like-minded neighbors opposed the quarry company’s application for an environmental permit. Kinnell has already begun to hear the noise of blasting and heavy equipment in the distance and fears that he will soon see giant grout piles rising where he now sees nothing but trees and the chimney smoke of a few isolated neighbors.
About a year ago I began to follow the permitting process, which included a contested noise demonstration and a hilarious soggy trek through cedar swamp with lawyers wearing inappropriate shoes. The process held a special fascination for me, in part because Kinnell had seemed to be living the same dream that brought me to live in a town just one ridge over from his and was now living the nightmare that always dogs such a dream. I, too, count moose and bear among my nearest neighbors. I can see virtually every star one is able to see in the northern hemisphere. In the stillest hours of the early morning, Adam in his Garden has little over me. “It’s so quiet here,” say my guests from New Jersey. “So peaceful.”
And so vulnerable. Quiet, after all, is the most assailable form of wealth. The same thief can forever be stealing it. It can grow back in a moment’s respite, like the liver of Prometheus, only to be devoured by the screaming eagles once again. To tell a truth I seldom admit, sometimes I feel most at peace when I am seated on the porch of my in-laws’ house in a blue-collar town in New Jersey, watching the kids play on the sidewalk and listening to the manhole cover tap amiably under the frequent traffic. Everything is settled there: I mean all the land and all the possibilities that haunt you when you’re tempted to believe that your world extends as far as you can see and hear.
All of this is to locate the psychological place from which I began my exploration of quiet and noise. Like most quests, it began with “a passing sight,” a disturbing image that one cannot easily suppress. Mine was the sight of Galway Kinnell’s face when an environmental board member asked him, somewhere on the dirt road that led to the quarry, “Now, where is your house, Mr. Kinnell?” He turned and pointed toward a hill, several miles across an open field, with an obliging smile and the eyes of someone who has realized for the first time that he can die.
Again and again, the people I found in the forefront of some anti-noise campaign were individuals who had moved from a noisier place to a quieter, only to have that quieter place grow loud. When Jane Moore came to Jerome, Arizona, some twenty-eight years ago, it was practically a ghost town. Formerly the site of a booming copper mine and home to 15,000 people, it was then a cluster of mostly abandoned buildings on either side of a desert highway. Moore was among the artists and squatters who began taking up residence next door to the few locals who had managed somehow to hang on. It was a place of steep canyons and weird acoustics: a clack of pool balls or a wind chime’s jangle sounding in unexpected comers like the traces of restless spirits. For Moore, who had grown up next to a freight switching yard in Chicago, five miles away from O’Hare Airport, this was the place of quiet ambience she had always been searching for. She may find herself searching again. There are presently about 350 adults in Jerome, including three police officers. On some weekends as many as 500 motorcycles pass through to town, many sporting “modified” exhaust pipes that together with the terrain amplify the thunder of their descent through the canyon. A favorite stop is a rock-and-roll bar in town called The Spirit Room. Vice Mayor Moore and her associates in town government are attempting to pass a noise ordinance; the Modified Motorcycle Association of Arizona has promised that any such law will not go unchallenged. Bikers made the same point by driving into town one weekend and filling it with the modified sound of their presence.
There’s an implicit cultural symbolism in conflicts such as this, none more pronounced than what I found in the ongoing feud between the New Hampshire International Speedway in the working-class town of Louden and the residents of scenic Canterbury, home to the “most intact and authentic of all Shaker villages” in America. The countryside and much of the architecture around Canterbury are about as arcadian and colonial as one could imagine. Some 1,800 of the original 3,000-acre Shaker holdings, roughly 700 owned by the Shaker museum itself and the rest owned privately, are all under conservation easement. The tranquillity of the place would seem to be “secured,” established, unassailable. But on major race weekends–as opposed to ordinary race weekends, which are virtually every weekend from April to October–the noise of 450-horsepower stock cars in neighboring Louden can reach the decibel level of jet planes. Standing in the front yard of a Canterbury residence, one sound expert measured noise levels as high as 85 decibels, roughly the same level as a lawn mower heard from six feet–this coming from a source half a mile away. For Hillary Nelson, who moved from New York to Canterbury with her husband, such noise is an atrack on her quality of life. To many of the people in Louden, who have received tax revenues, a new ball field, a new fire engine, and $50,000 a year in college scholarships from the racetrack, noise is what you pay for quality of life.
In both Louden and Jerome, the source of the offending noise grew from a smaller, preexisting source of tolerable noise. As long as anyone can remember, there has been a biker bar in Jerome and a racetrack in Louden. What is more, by all accounts the patrons of both of these earlier establishments, though fewer, were wilder than the people who frequent them now. As the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse’s Les Blomberg explained to me, one of the most frequent arguments made against those bothered by noise is that the offending noise source “was always there.” The Sheffield quarry is being touted as a “reopening” of a pick-and-shovel operation that once extracted granite on the site. The Amcast plant in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, a large foundry that also has been at the center of a noise dispute with some of its neighbors, expanded from a small munitions plant during the Second World War to a major supplier of castings for the automobile industry. In each of these cases the disingenuous argument of “prior occupancy” is accompanied by avowals and sometimes even by hard evidence that the noisy party is trying, somewhat, to be “a good neighbor.” Amcast, for instance, spent an estimated $400,000 in an attempt to make its foundry quieter, and seems to have succeeded. Even his critics credit racetrack-owner Bob Bahre with running an orderly operation that caters to a “family” clientele. Likewise, the owner of The Spirit Room bar is known to his patrons and to those who’d just as soon see his patrons spirited away for urging bikers not to rev their engines in town. Nevertheless, the thought of a 90,000-seat NASCAR track being “a good neighbor” to a rural village, or 500 motorcyclists becoming good neighbors to a town of 400, is something like the thought of King Kong being a good lover to Fay Wray. It may be sincere, it may even be noble, but if you’re the one gripped in the big hairy paw it can only feel obscene.
The subject of noise and scale is of particular interest given the value we now place on cultural and biological “diversity.” The soundscape provides both an example of diversity and an instructive analogy to other domains. A smaller sound can coexist with a number of other smaller sounds, but even a number of smaller sounds cannot coexist with one big noise. Never mind the forest–if a baby falls during a rock concert, does it make a sound? Different forms of the same question can be applied to species, languages, and ways of life. Those who dismiss the noise issue as “merely aesthetic” are, of course, ignoring the well-documented medical and psychological effects of noise. They are also forgetting that, in the context of relationships, aesthetics can become ethics.
The other thing that interests me about noise disputes is the way in which class conflict informs them, or seems to inform them. Of course it was no surprise to learn that a poorer life is frequently a noisier one, that those with low incomes are more likely to suffer from noise than the affluent, more likely to work next to the motor, more likely to live next to the airport, more likely to rent the apartment lower down and with thinner walls. But controversies between communities and a noisy industry are likely to pit neighbor against worker, at least in the eyes of the worker, who may tend to see the neighbor as someone with a good job who doesn’t mind threatening some- one else’s job. This was certainly my impression when I was hanging out with the half-dozen Sheffield quarry workers while environmental experts, lawyers, and those with “party status” made their inspections of the site. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and the whole bunch of them will fall into a hole,” said a young equipment operator. Certain supporters of the quarry were quick to frame the issue as a conflict between the interests of the poet on the hill and those of the peon in the valley, between people who had come from elsewhere with money in their pockets and those who’d lived in the area all their lives with none. This is an old and bitter distinction in my neck of the woods, and one not without relevance to the politics of noise and quiet. When I first moved to “the north country,” I often wondered why some of the men I talked to spoke so loud, until I realized that they had been partially deafened by mill-work, chain saws, and tractors. I imagine that to many of these men, the idea of someone with an indoor job or a university education being sensitive to noise amounts to something like a personal insult, like holding your nose at the smell of your baggage carrier’s sweat. And to approach things from the other side, I also imagine that certain displays of noise are intended as personal insults. Power in the hinterlands graws not only out of the barrel of a gun but also out of the barrel of an exhaust pipe and anything else that makes a good loud bang. Class warfare can come down to a war of sensibility: Fuck with me and I’ll park something big and ugly across from your breakfast nook. Piss me off and I’ll teach it to sing.
But the relationship between noise and class could be more peculiar than I supposed, and this became clearer in the case of recreational as opposed to occupational noise. What I discovered was how often the appearance of class struggle was manipulated to stereotype a dispute and how often that appearance was deceiving. That fracas over motorcycles in Jerome: obviously a fight between working-class guys having a little fun on the weekend and a bunch of potters and weavers living off trust funds, right? Not exactly. If you’re looking for Marlon Brando, he ain’t here. These days a new Harley-Davidson can cost nearly $20,000, and the typical “biker” in Jerome is an anesthesiologist or investment broker from Flagstaff getting in touch with his primal side. As for the track in Louden, a third of those who attend its NASCAR races have incomes of over $40,000 a year, and the drivers themselves need a hundred grand just to get a car ready for the track.
“They try to shape the battle into good old regular folks who like racing and these rich eggheads up on the hill,” Hillary Nelson complains, and Bob Bahre was indeed quoted in the newspaper as saying that the sixteen Canterbury residents who had appealed a court ruling allowing him to expand his stadium capacity were “all wealthy people” who “just don’t care about anybody else.” This may not be as hypocritical a statement as it first seems; Bahre grew up on a hardscrabble farm, raced stock cars when the sport was strictly blue-collar in New England, and pretty marginal at that, and is still known for joining his cleanup crew in picking up litter off the race grounds. At some level, the Canterbury sixteen, who included a nurse, a salesman, and a musician, probably did seem like “the wealthy” to him. The fact remains that the money, the power, and the noise are on his side.
Back in Sheffield, I found myself taking the same second look. The “elitists” allied with Kinnell included two trailer folk who eke a subsistence living from the land, the sort of people who never count when small-town populists wax eloquent about “the people.” The self-appointed defender of South African enterprise and local common sense who wrote letters to the newspaper identifying himself with the “peasants” against the “elitists” from outside was a transplant from New Jersey. The “native Vermonter” who complained about those people “who say, ‘We’ve been to New York, we’ve had all the benefits of New York, but we don’t want you to have them,’” had children with degrees from Stanford and Tufts–which doesn’t exactly discredit her point of view but does suggest that the New York types have been a bit lax of late in maintaining their choke hold on cultural advantages. I became suspicious of any easy alignment of quiet and noise with privilege and deprivation. And I found that my own sentiments on the issue could shift as suddenly as sound on a windy day.
One Friday I followed the winding road out of Canterbury and abruptly found myself at the crowded intersection of the main highway through Louden at the start of a Winston Cup weekend. Entering a line of traffic that recalled evacuation scenes in disaster movies, I thought how stock-car racing could stand for everything I find distasteful in American civilization: the needless noise, the ubiquitous advertising, the waste of resources, the risking of human life for “special effect,” the primacy of all things Caucasian and masculine, the out-of-shape motor culture’s cherished belief that the best form of contact sport is one in which an athlete’s buttocks make prolonged contact with a foam seat, the taking over of what was once the domain of inventive amateurs by the all-hallowed “pro” and his all-but-professional fans. I stopped to talk with one young enthusiast in the parking lot of an ice cream stand near the track. “What if they could make race cars quieter?” I asked him. “Would you go for that?” With the beatific smirk of a street evangelist declaring to every passerby that “God is love,” he told me, “Noise is good.”
But as I approached the track itself, I was not insensible of a certain magnificence, of the stadium rising like an immense, elliptical cathedral out of a sprawling metropolis of RVs and white billowing pavilions such as one might have seen at a jousting tournament. Carloads and truckloads of the faithful streamed in from the highway to pay homage to a Yankee farmboy’s dream of building a world-class racetrack and a Tennessee farmboy’s dream of being able to harness enough horsepower to outrun every revenuer on the road. Hundreds of banners proclaimed his victory, checkered flags and beer brands blazoned on every one, like lilies and crosses on Easter. Mister, you want to talk about myths and civilizations and the growth of ancient cities–this is our myth and our city, and we build it in two days, more than a hundred thousand of us in a swirling blur like pilgrims circling the Ka’ba, exulting–as another race fan puts it–”in the rev and the roar.”
I stopped counting after the third or fourth anti-noise activist told me that “noise pollution will be the secondhand smoke issue of the new century.” I ought to have been happy to hear it. To say that I resent noise even more than I resent cigarette smoke is to say that I resent it very much. And yet I couldn’t hear the comparison between noise pollution and secondhand smoke without wincing. Maybe I detect in the campaign against noise, as in the campaign against smoking, a flavor of that ruthless “progressivism” that first manifested itself when families of Neanderthals began to disappear oh so mysteriously from among their Cro-Magnon neighbors. “Must be the evolution,” said the others, shifting their feet and whistling. As our society moves from a manufacturing base to an “information base,” and as more and more blue-collar workers put on the livery of the service sector, is it any surprise that we should find our old machinery too noisy and the vices of those who tend it too intolerable, that we should demand our servants keep their voices down (like that Roman master so infuriated by unexpected noises that he had his slave thrown into a pond of lampreys for accidentally dropping a tray of crystal glasses) and take their nasty habits outside, while indoors we fuss to attain the perfect funereal quiet of an online chat room?
Might at least some of the noise assailing us amount to a protest against the threat of cultural or economic extinction? “I make noise, therefore I am.” The Hispanic gardeners who recently went on a hunger strike to protest an L.A. ban on leaf-blowers said that the law was aimed at their race. In effect, they were saying that a noise identified them; silencing it was an attack on them. In a similar vein: “To everybody who told me I’d go nowhere in life: I can’t hear you.” That’s a Sony advertisement for a car stereo system that cranks out sound at 164 decibels, loud enough to kill fish, but it easily could serve as the slogan for a generation that is not so much lost as unclaimed. Maybe the best way to fight the Boomers is with something that booms.
I wonder, too, if some of our antipathy toward noise isn’t the negative form of our totalitarian consumerism, the belief that we ought to be able, as though by divine right, to achieve complete satisfaction of our every distaste no less than of our every desire. And will the ear ultimately lead the eye to more refined levels of fastidiousness? My interest in noise ordinances took me to an affluent New Jersey suburb where “hawkers, peddlers, and vendors,” as well as “yelling, shouting, whistling, or singing on the public streets,” are all prohibited by statute and where hanging up wash on an outdoor clothesline is prohibited by custom. It’s funny to imagine that any people on earth, much less well-to-do people in the wealthiest nation on earth, would deny themselves or their neighbors the inestimable luxury of making love on sun-dried, wind-kissed sheets, or the wistful hope of some enchanted morning coming upon a peddler. If you met Humphrey Bogart in heaven, would you ask him to put out his cigarette? If you get to heaven at all, will you ask them to tum down the choir?
“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
But this too: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth.”
I hate noise as much as anyone I know, and I can flatter myself with the names of others in history who hated it, too: Darwin, Proust, Goethe, Poe, Haydn, Chekhov. Recent studies tend to confirm Schopenhauer’s hunch: “I have for a long time been of the opinion that the quantity of noise anyone can comfortably endure is in inverse proportion to his mental powers….” But I cannot forget that in addition to hating noise Schopenhauer hated the fact that he’d been born (and Poe felt that the most inspiring women were, shall we say, the extremely quiet kind). The connections worry me.
I would never want to forget what Thoreau said about the train: “when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet… it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.” Or what James Agee said about the importance of playing Beethoven loud. I agree wholeheartedly with the motto of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, “Good Neighbors Keep Their Noise to Themselves,” and I try my best to practice it, but something else in me wants to cry, “Aw, go ahead” when Bob Marley sings,
I want to disturb my neighbor
Cause I’m feeling so right
I want to turn up my disco
Blow them to full watts tonight
True, whenever I take overnight accommodations, I always ask first if there are any wedding parties or traveling sports teams likely to “blow them to full watts” in the rooms nearby; yet few scenes in literature delight me as much as the one in Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, in which an anonymous Spaniard, having complained the night before about a row he mistakes for a boisterous honeymoon (”very well for you, señor,” he calls through the door, “but please to remember there are zose below you who are not so young”), leaves flowers and this message at the door the next day: “Forgive my ill manners of last night. Love conquers all and youth must be served. May you know a hundred years of happy nights. Your Neighbour in the Chamber below.”
To all of this, I have no doubt, many anti-noise activists would say, “We love these sounds no less than you. The problem is that every single one of them, Agee’s quaint phonograph and Thoreau’s equally quaint train, the joyful noise and the rub-a-dub style, is being overpowered by the boom car and the air horn, by a cacophony that is literally making us deaf” (and that Canadian noise expert Winston Sydenborgh estimates is doubling world- wide every ten years). Blake said, “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings,” but we are dealing now with the dark raptors of limitless amplification. Point granted. It was that secondhand smoke business that got to me, I guess. It was talking with Paul Miluski, the soon-to-be-without-his-lease owner of The Spirit Room biker bar in Jerome, whom I liked instantly, as I would have to like any man who plays croquet on a rooftop. Robert Frost said that he needed the poor for his work; I need a few Paul Miluskis for mine. And if they do not make at least some noise, how shall I know where to find them?
My noisy self-contradictions are very American, of course. Being an American is about living in contradiction, if it is about anything, because the glory and the tragedy of America come from our insatiable desire always to have the best of both worlds. That includes the worlds of noise and quiet, of utter freedom and inner peace. We want our own backyard version of the cloistered walk and our own Promethean stereo system as well. We want to practice Zen but mainly in the art of motorcycle maintenance. The purists, those who register one impulse or another as an enthusiasm and an allegiance rather than both impulses together as a complex form of yearning, are meeting now on the shrinking landscape and, perhaps more significantly, in the soundscape. Like radio stations on a crowded dial, their frequencies clash at certain bends in the road.
I actually take this meeting as a hopeful sign in that both of these impulses are essentially apolitical; that is, they both tend to express themselves against the quotidian sounds of the polis. Whether you choose to follow Huckleberry Finn or the Buddha, you always start by lighting out for the territories. Perhaps the exuberant noisemaker and the quiet seeker will discover that they are natural allies in spite of themselves, because each will of necessity have to appeal to the very sense of public domain and public life that once seemed anathema to their desires. To preserve either liberty or tranquillity against the passion of the other’s counterclaim, one must in the end circle back to a rational discussion at the city gates.
The other reason I can take hope from the noise issue is its ability to penetrate and subvert political positions just as sound can penetrate–and, given the right Jericho, break down–a wall. Where would you locate the right and left wings of the noise pollution issue, for instance? Everywhere and nowhere. You can see noise as a threat to the most basic principles of private property, hearth and home. In other words, you can see noise as a threat to all those things that ought to be most dear to the conservative heart. Or you can see noise pollution as a threat to “the commons,” an allusion frequently made by Les Blomberg and others in the anti-noise movement to the doomed English practice of preserving some common ground for community grazing. The soundscape is self-evidently property that no one owns, or rather that all of us own together. If it is possible to construct a “unified field theory” for our conflicting political currents, might it be found there? And if we could establish an ethic for sharing the soundscape, might that in tum pull us–by the ear, so to speak–to an ethic for sharing other forms of wealth? If any of these hopes is well founded, it may rest on nothing more sophisticated than the old wisdom of old neighborhoods, which says that the only sure way to hold a loud party without complaints from the neighbors, and with some hope of sleeping late and quietly the next day, is to invite all the neighbors to the party.
My hopes are probably not well founded, however. As we divide our world more ruthlessly into rich and poor, and the countryside into what Wendell Berry calls “defeated landscapes and victorious (but threatened) landscapes,” it is probable that we will do the same thing in regard to sound. Many of us will live in pandemonium, and a few of us will have the means to live in paradise. The permeability of the soundscape may yet teach us to recognize the flaw in that arrangement, but we are likely to interpret the warning alarm as no more than a call to move elsewhere. Most of us will continue to put our faith in our mobility, in being able to run from the noise to someplace quieter. Like our pre-human ancestors, we still respond to noise with a fight-or-flight response, which at our stage of development means weighing the relative costs of the lawyer and the realtor.
Of course, the irony of flight is the sound of flight itself. By far the largest number of noise complaints in this country have to do with modes of transportation, highway noise first of all, airport noise after that. Earlier I said that the first of two principles governing the relationship between mobility and noise is that people move to escape noise, and by moving they find it. The second principle is that people move to escape noise, and by moving they make it.
Along with fight and flight is there not a third ingrained response to the overwhelming power of noise, which is to fawn, to assume the position of joining what we cannot beat? So those who cherish quiet we dismiss as failed stoics, which may mean nothing more than that we are resigned to being cynics. In any case, I have begun to notice a curious thing about noise, which is how the pursuits disturbed or destroyed by it–pursuits such as writing a poem, watching a bird, or even looking after a child–can be made to sound so insignificant precisely because they make so little sound. Hillary Nelson told me of a day when her three-year-old son fell and hurt himself in her front yard, but she could not hear him crying over the drone of the race cars in Louden. I suspect that many will be as deaf to her complaint as she was to his cry. Kids fall all the time, right? From Jerome, Jane Moore wrote me a letter about a friend who moved out of town because she was dying of cancer and the motorcycle noise was making the process more painful. And I imagined the same cynical voice responding, “Let me get this straight. You need quiet to die?”
Actually, the time may be coming when you will not even need quiet to be dead. A German media artist who finds the notion of a quiet grave “idiotic” has recently created an exhibit of vocal tombstones, one of which “moans lustfully” when stroked: I find myself thinking about the moaning tombstone whenever someone tells me, with a faith so innocent it can bring tears to your eyes, how Technology (invoked with a capital T) is going to be our solution to the noise problem. Of course it can be, with marvelous results. In Europe, where noise reduction has a much higher place on the political agenda than it does here, roads are being built that reduce traffic noise by as much as 70 percent. Even the Harleys exported to Europe are designed to run quieter and, as an unintended result of such tinkering, turn out to have even more horsepower than their hoggish American cousins. Mechanical noise, after all, is an inefficient loss of energy (though many American consumers still equate louder volume with higher performance). So it is sometimes possible, with a little know-how, to have the best of both worlds. But for every noise we quiet, we produce another. Most of all, we continue to produce a false sense of virtual quiet by distancing ourselves from the actual noise we make. This is the ultimate form of “civilized” mobility: the removal of my actions from their effects. I don’t have to hear the printing presses that publish my words, the strip-mining equipment that feeds my computer. I’m a writer, you see. I practice a quiet occupation. Technology has carried that old suspicious adage about not shitting where you eat to a place perilously above suspicion, where highly intelligent people are capable of believing that they don’t even shit where they shit. When I tried to suggest as much to some of the movers and shakers in the noise movement-for instance, to the consultant for an airport-noise group who told me that he logs 75,000 flight miles a year in his work–the response I got was often a bit chilly. Perhaps this was due to the understandable fear that someone already in danger of being branded a crank might also be branded a Luddite. But perhaps it rather had to do with a deal already struck with the successful manufacture of the first mud brick some nine or ten millennia ago. As the consultant told me, “The absolutist approach [i.e., the one I had just proposed to him] says we must change the way we live… but no one’s going to stop the growth of airlines. Why tilt at windmills you can’t defeat? I wouldn’t want to stop rhe evolution of our science, even though there are going to be losers.”
So in the end the most raucous disturbance of the peace (or the most cynical response to the complaints of those disturbed) may be nothing else but the brazen form of a more discreet and universal communication, the signed version of an anonymous chain letter that the rest of us mail out every day and that comes back with interest to everybody’s mailbox sooner or later. (And sooner than later will be able to announce its arrival by moaning lustfully.) When this essay is done, for example, I will send it to New York City overnight mail because it absolutely positively has to be there, and because the other pursuits of my have-it-all life will undoubtedly push the project too close to its deadline. Overnight mail is only possible with overnight flight, which has made no small contribution to the 2,156 percent increase in air-cargo traffic since 1960. Sometime in the night the plane carrying my little meditation on noise will fly over someone’s roof, waking her or her aged father or her colicky three-month-old from a sound sleep. Wrapping her robe furiously around herself, perhaps going so far as to light a cigarette with her trembling fingers, she will curse that plane, and, to some small degree that I cannot gauge and can never hear, she will be cursing me. And those cranky old gods of Sumer and Uruk, long since deaf if not dead, will do no more than I will to help.
Originally published here in March 2001 Harper's Magazine, this piece led to the new book The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise
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