The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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OCT 2020 Issue
Music In Conversation


Catherine Christer Hennix, “NUR for Marian Zazeela” (2005), installation at the Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2018. Photo: Michael Yo.
Catherine Christer Hennix, “NUR for Marian Zazeela” (2005), installation at the Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2018. Photo: Michael Yo.

This is the second in a two-part conversation with Swedish mathematician/poet/composer/musician Catherine Christer Hennix. In the September issue we talked about the ontology of music and the significance of drone-based sounds, and Hennix introduced the idea of the sonic shrine.

Marcus Boon (Rail): Today there's all kinds of musicians who are making music in different ways. Yet you've been insistent that something is missing in terms of people's understanding of what music is. Does the devotional aspect tend to get lost? The articulation of the inner sound, as you're calling it?

Catherine Christer Hennix: The issue is rather that of channeling the inner sound, how it may inspire a music session. I give you a recent example: The thing closest to Coltrane, besides Guruji [Pandit Pran Nath] that I can think of was an experience at a Gnawa concert I attended in Berlin a couple of years ago. It was really, really beautiful, tarab was all there. Although the setting was commercialized, it still had this projection of spirituality that homogenized everything. It wasn't just one sound, there were also a lot of clappers that were incredibly sophisticated. I never heard that on recordings, which fail to make each clapper distinct. I was amazed by what they're doing. That is the current tradition that I feel I'm closest to in terms of my performance, although I don't use percussion. The point is to provide for an opening to an alternative universe. Note that this Latin word means “one song” or something like that—to turn a single song into a cosmic event …

Rail: I have a section on Gnawa in my forthcoming book where I talk about the music in terms of continuity. It's anecdotal, based on a trip to Marrakesh in 2001 where we sat all night in the square listening to the musicians. But I also did some reading and it's clear that the Gnawa rituals go on for nine hours or more and there's all kinds of sonic vibrational aspects to what they're doing …

Hennix: I just came across an article about Randy Weston and Pharoah Sanders working with Gnawa people. I never heard these recordings. One line, which Pharoah stated, struck me though: [he] said that before they move on to another stage of the Lila ceremony, they have to reach a certain level in the section of the sound that they presently are at. I thought that was incredible. in other words, you're not allowed to move on until you've gotten all the way. That's my idea too—which I take to be an instance of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. That's what I feel it takes. Coltrane was the last Western improvising musician who did that in a concerted and deliberate way.

Rail: It has to do with searching for something, but in order to search for something you have to be clear about what it is you're searching for, so that when you find it you know you found it!

Hennix: Yes, because it's not the first time you're there!

Rail: That includes the audience too. To play a piece of music where you're just randomly searching but you don't know what you're looking for is just arbitrary, whereas that sense that if “ragas are living souls,” as Pran Nath said, and the goal of making music is to bring forth this living soul—it takes some time, depending on the conditions to bring forth this living soul. So you keep on doing what you're doing until it happens!

Hennix: I know, but why isn't everybody doing that? Many try to finish before they're ready for anything. Anyway, I wanted to talk about this piece I'm writing about the sonic shrine idea. The preliminary title is “Sant-i-Sarmand: A Modality of Sound From Time Before Time.” So, Sant-i-Sarmand was considered a sound from which light was created before anything else assumed a form of existence. What existed in pre-eternal time had no form—that is, sound and light were formed as ethereal substances that were one with the timeless One: the principle or word to which everything created must return after its singular scattered existence. Eternity is the cosmic bridge that connects the pre-eternal with the post-eternal. The post-eternal signalling the end of creation, its resting place, the end of all forms, where all action takes place by nonaction. When the arrival of the effortless universe is in complete equilibrium with itself, resting in a single place without form, diffused over aeons and sealing the fate of all creation by preserving the invariants of the timeless One. Parenthetically speaking, time is only local, space is global. Outside time is the existence of space and outside of space is the One who seeds it.

Sant-i-Sarmand is only sparsely mentioned, if at all, in Western forms of Islam, i.e. west of India, meaning Persia, the Ottoman empire. Rather, it's in its Eastern forms that its theory and practice are to be found, and in particular in India, where under the influence of Sufism it has been developed as a fundamental concept by many tariqa. In India this concept is not exclusively developed as a branch of Islamic philosophy and practice but is also found to be prominent in the (Kashmiri) Tantric Buddhist and Hindu philosophy that asserts monism as its fundamental tenet.

According to Indian mystics the existence of the universe began as a sound, which still vibrates throughout cosmic space and whose primal frequencies, as we can today observe, are thought to be existing as baryon resonance imprints of the cosmic background radiation—according to modern quantum cosmology, theories that were not available until recently. In the light of modern cosmology all particles that cohere in making up forms of life originated in outer space but were arrested by the Earth. We therefore need to think of our own existence as made up of material that originated not just in our own galaxy but way beyond in deep space, a view of living matter that puts Darwin on notice.

Although derived from pursuing a purely speculative cosmogony, the Indian theory of Sant-i-Sarmand has been at the foundation of its practice of music and meditation, which has resulted in the most developed and sophisticated traditional musical practice and composition ever known. By this tradition, instrumental sounds at their most subtle level merely reflect, but do not constitute, Sant-i-Sarmand. In this tradition there exists a primary distinction between acoustic sounds, ahata, sounds that are transmitted by air, and sounds we may perceive directly which do not travel by air—anahata. The latter sounds are conceived as those vibrations that originate inside our stardust bodies and are therefore referred to as our inner sounds.

There are of course many species of inner sounds that our inner organs produce by their mechanical actions. However these are not counted as anahata … nor are sounds like ahata, for which we already have familiar words such as bells, thunderclaps etcetera—which are the sounds that are referred to in Tantric Buddhism. They [aren’t] drone-like sounds in just intonation at all.

Rail: I don't know about that. If you read good translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the descriptions of sounds are pretty drone-like.

Hennix: Really? That's what I thought was pretty corny about Tibetan Buddhism … the sounds in deep meditation were similar to sounds you were already familiar with, terrestrial sounds …

Rail: If I think about mantras, maybe that is similar to what you're talking about. But the description of the vibrational continuum of the bardo is a different thing, it's described as a roaring …

Hennix: That is not the sound I'm relating here. The anahata sounds at issue originate from the electrochemical properties of the central nervous system. One aspect of which is perceived as otoacoustic emissions. The latter are most easily perceived in a space that is perfectly silent and when the mind is free from distracting thoughts, which impede the concentration on this singular sound. The sustained entrainment of this electronic sound may be induced by combining meditation with listening to ahata sounds that have been specifically composed to enhance this entrainment.

In order to measure the progress of such a change of course, I have during the last 50 years suggested an implementation of public buildings as carriers of sound shrines, or mini-ashrams, [with] dedicated rooms for listening to the inner sound, as well as composite sound wave forms that serve to prime the listener to open up to the inner sound by tuning the ears’ inner hair cells to specific rational intervals.

By this method the inner sound is gradually awakened by years of practice, and this sound is what Sant-i-Sarmand originally referred to. This original practice has always been subjected to the impossibility of maintaining the tuning of the strings of the tambura, which rarely [lasts] an hour before it needs to be re-tuned, which inevitably forces a disruption to the sound until it's in tune again. Modern electronic technology is not subjected to this limitation, which ejects the listener out of sustained sonic bliss which the tambura effects. Thus, by deploying phase-locked sine wave generators generating a composition of sine waves, composite sound waves may be sustained forever at the pleasure of the user. This fact however does not mean that the tambura has been superseded by modern technology—in fact, it will always remain an incomparable source of inspiration and guidance for finding ever more subtle composite sounds. It is thus quite natural that practicing Sant-i-Sarmand is not for everyone.

My contention has always been that the future of music and art, sound and light, needs aesthetics to coalesce with ethics. This has certainly been a hard sell during my 50 years as an active composer, which is why public exposure to my work has been very limited, not to say nonexistent, over long periods of time. I have taken as a standard measure of the fusion of aesthetics and ethics the length permitted by society which allows for the public performance of any sustained sound. Therefore, its limit would be what I have called an infinitary composition. It is more than an irony that current music and art establishments and institutions deny this limit … even approximately by any public means, in that Sant-i-Sarmand [would be] accessible to anyone who desires it as a private experience, by anyone who is willing to invest in the discipline that this practice requires. Current culture denies this access to many who are in need of calming down their uncontrolled minds, and leaves them chronically cognitively handicapped by … attention fatigue.

Rail: What are the events or situations you've experienced where you've actually realized this sonic shrine idea in your life?

Hennix: Well there was my studio in Stockholm. That's what we did back then.

Rail: The silent green Kulturquartier installation in Berlin was interesting that way but it wasn't really available 24/7.

Hennix: Cage has a piece in a church outside of Berlin where the organ plays a short sound at certain random intervals, but that is quirky—it's not a sound you can trust or rely on. And it's not building you up, it's more like a circus number. So the idea about long duration compositions is not new. What is new in my concept is that I want to build up peoples' sensibility so that they understand how they function. Everybody wants to be somewhere else, it seems—here is a way of making them understand that you're already where you're supposed to be. People who are devoted to meditation gradually understand that they don't have to go anywhere. Parmenides’s idea was to sit still, not to run around, because when you’re sitting still things happen to you that walking around distracts you from. If you sit still in a place where you don't have to talk, and nobody else is talking, but there’s a sound and maybe some light forms that help you focus, then that gives you a platform for investigating yourself and understanding what your limitations and potentials are. Which you can work with also when you go out of this room because from time to time you need to leave in order to be socially useful.

Rail: Now all of that is scrambled because we're in lockdown or quarantine and suddenly we're forced to sit in our rooms. It could be a great opportunity. Once you get used to it, it's easier to stay in your room and be there …

Hennix: It seems that most people don't want to be there, they want to go out all of a sudden. They are still unsatisfied with themselves and still want to be somewhere else … So there's no homecoming feeling at all about sitting at home. And of course, going out is also strange since you have to be one alligator length away from other people. The whole thing has been scrambled and distorted. It looks terrible actually.

Rail: What you're talking about is valuing an inner life, but there's obviously a politics of valuing an inner life, because mostly the circumstances that we're forced to live in do not allow us to explore the richness of an inner life, and now people are so stressed out and freaked out that even when people have an opportunity to sit with themselves, they can't do it because they're afraid or distracted …

Hennix: Yes, it is very tragic. This was a great opportunity to do a new thing, but people choose to do what they used to do, and they forget about it. Western society simply is not able to carry these ideas to any length, so now it is falling apart like a house of cards.


Marcus Boon

Marcus Boon is the author of several books including the forthcoming Politics of Vibration. He also recently co-edited the Practice reader for the Whitechapel Gallery's Documents of Contemporary Art Series. He teaches at York University.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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