SA11: The Ritual Issue
I am a soldier against chaos, but not by choice. Intellectually, I love the idea of entropy - all the energies of the world flying off in whatever direction strikes their fancy. My heart, however, is devoted to order. This is a friction I find myself treasuring in recent years. To add to the rub, I have spent a lot of quiet moments wondering about aspects of order and the, sometimes chaotic, ways in which they manifest in the lives of artistic individuals and culture in general. And in this, our eleventh issue of Sound American, I am using this line of inquiry to structure a set of conversations with, and writings by, a loose amalgam of thinkers and doers on the subject of order and one specific way in which it can manifest: the ritual.
The content of this issue is roughly broken out into two forms of ritual in which music or art can be engaged.
The first involves actions inherent in spiritual community or growth. As one would expect, I found the words ritual or rites used most commonly in the language of the church, synagogue, mosque, etc. Within this form there tends to be two broad ways in which music is used. The first is music created specifically for specialized ritual actions of religion, i.e. High Mass in the Catholic faith. The second is essentially a reverse of the first, meaning the music that was originally created for religious traditions being used as a central theme for secular variation, i.e. the use of Gregorian chant melodic material in certain variants of heavy metal.
The second form is the cultural or personal ritual. These modes can be more subtle and, in a way, more interesting to me as a musician. They are less rigidly articulated, and indicative of a societal moment in time. Some exist on a large scale, like the ritual of sport, and vary from culture to culture, while others may exist only with one person at a specific time, like the exercise plans or practice regimens. The different relationships to rites, repetition and, ultimately, order in these circumstances are the crux of my own line of questioning and therefore make up the bulk of this issue.
This less-than-chaotic approach to the topic is not reflected in the following issue, however, much to my great delight. Instead, as an editor, I put the above stated taxonomy of ritual forms into an ill-defined heap in the middle of my brain and allowed ideas to leach in out of the ether, as close as I can get to a kind of entropy. Finding people involved in the act of making music for religious ritual was central, of course, but there are contributors that work squarely in the worlds of cultural ritual as well. And, perhaps the most interesting are those whose work just has a feeling of ritual to it. The combination of these multiple viewpoints start to give a vague feeling of what ritual means to those who make: repetition, space, atmosphere, empathy.
The issue is broken out by format. Four interviews are featured in the initial release and on this page, including a delightfully sprawling conversation with saxophonist, composer, activist, and historian Matana Roberts on the tradition of storytelling, oral history, and the music of community action. Catherine Christer Hennix talks about her work that combines advanced mathematics with the musical forms found in Sufi Islamic tradition, and how she concentrates on the impact the sound can have on the experiencer. At opposite ends of the spectrum, Brian McWhorter and Cantor Josh Breitzer talk about their experiences with music as a tool in bringing communities together: McWhorter in his composition for a 10k road race and Breitzer within the complex and powerful tradition of nus’cha’ot in Judaism.
It is my sincere hope that we can all gather enlightenment from this joyously chaotic set of thoughts about how we view ritual and what part it plays in our lives as musicians and music lovers. Is it merely repetition? Is it creating a space? Is it something larger than us, or is it an expression of our smallest quirks? Is it dangerous or a place of comfort? Questioning ritual in our lives and in the music we experience is a convoluted process, but one that can take us into a wonderfully messy spiral of thought about ourselves, art, and culture.
Matana Roberts on the Ritual of Oral History and Community Action
Sound American: Some of our readers may not be familiar with the Coin Coin Project, so it would be good for us to start with an overview of what you’ve done already, in the first two chapters leading into chapter 3 which you’ve just released.
Matana Roberts: The Coin Coin Project is basically something I started to challenge myself as a composer, and to try and experiment with my own ideas around sound conceptualism. But, coming from the strength of improvisation. And, I’ve always been interested in alternative ways of notation. So, I was trying to find a way of crossing that [challenging myself as a composer, improvisation, alternative notation] with my interest in performance art.
I’m a really visual person, and have a learning disorder and never really understood music in a traditional way. I studied, you know, but I always had a lot of problems. And, Coin Coin represents all the things my teachers told me not to do (laughs). The things they told me, ”no one is going to understand what you’re doing and…"
SA: That’s usually a good sign of where you should go.
MR: Yeah, thank God I had the opportunity to figure that out. So, I bundled all that up in a sort of a selfish way to deal with my interest in history and American history. I grew up in a family, also, that was really steeped [in American history] and so I felt like the best way to just jump into sewing all these things together was to take the thread of my own ancestry to start. I thought that doing it that way would keep things in an honest vein and keep me committed in a way that felt good to me, and also gave me a new way of looking into history. That was always the problem of dealing with history growing up. “Who are these people they’re talking about, all these forefathers..these people don’t look like me”. It was a way to clue it all together. So, yeah, it’s part ancestry, a smidgeon of that, but really just a way of navigating through a history that I really love..and hate and love and hate.
There was this one story I was told about this woman who I’m related to by marriage as far as I know, maybe by blood, but it’s still to be seen; the first strong female archetype I learned about. She was a slave who became this kind of business powerhouse in Louisiana, and her nickname was Coin Coin.
The whole project is divided into 12 segments: 2 solo segments and 10 ensembles. That’s how many stories I had when I boiled everything down, spanning from 1720 and probably not going past 1970 or 1965. I collect a lot of ephemera and old photographs, and one of the reasons this project got spurred is because I inherited maybe 250 family photographs spanning from the 1870s down to the 1970s. The photos from the 70s I can’t really deal with…everybody looks too funny. (laughs) It’s like “whoa, you walked out of the house like that?!” (laughs)
SA: As you know, this issue is about ritual. There were things that I picked out in the Coin Coin Project, just sonically or artistically, that made connections to that idea. One subject that you brought up already is the ritual of storytelling as oral history. At one point in Coin Coin Chapter 3 you actually say, “I like telling stories”. It’s not something I had even thought about, but there really is a social and ritual aspect of someone telling the history of a place that’s maybe becoming lost.
MR: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. I mean, I also have a family history that’s really odd, in that I have so much documentation of these people. On my mother’s side I have the entire [family] trees on both her maternal and paternal sides going back to 1750. And, I have stories in that lineage that are so peculiar in terms of what people were able to achieve: not only poor black Americans but poor white Americans. I felt like I really just wanted to share these stories, because they still give me so much strength. And it’s interesting when trails run dry; when you know that that person was definitely alive in 1942 but there’s nothing else. It’s really powerful to share these stories with other people in other places; in parts of Europe for instance - Germany or Poland. The stories people share with me. The angst I feel in the room knowing that I’m talking to people that can’t go back before 1945 basically. It’s so shocking that all they have left are these oral stories.
My dream is to, if I can just get finished with this, move on to other segments of history, and that war history is actually going to be part of the project. I’m also interested in the history of New York City, the history of immigration, but sometimes I get bogged down in the data. I have to pull myself out and remind myself that it’s about the sound, and how am I synthesizing the sound.
SA: So much of the ritual aspect that we’re talking about for this issue is the idea of creating a space. It sounds like the way you're structuring things, with the story telling and oral history, is setting up a very empathetic space, as in the example you gave of performing in Germany. When you’re thinking about the sound, are you thinking about how you would like the audience to experience the performance?
MR: Well, I need to find a better term for them, but I always call the audience “witness-participants”, because my whole goal with the Coin Coin music is to create kind of a womb of experience that we experience together. In every Coin Coin segment there are group sing-alongs and that’s on purpose. That spontaneous [act of] forcing people to sing with people they don’t know creates this whole other thing. I love watching that every time it happens. Everything shifts. Our brains are so clouded these days with the amount of information that’s being flashed at us all the time, and so it brings everybody into the present moment and then we can leave together. I really feel that improvisation is about plugging into the energy of that moment. And so, if the “witness-participants” are plugged in and you’re plugged in, it’s just this whole thing. And, that seems to be happening. It’s happened with the ensemble segments. Who’s to say if it’s going to happen with the solo segments, I’m not so sure.
SA: But, knowing that that’s the kind of space you want to create is an interesting thing to me because that’s not something necessarily that a composer or improviser has at the forefront of their mind, like “I want to create a room that feels like this, and here are the ways I can do it.” And, it seems like you are really specifically trying to create a thing between you and the other people in the room, whether it’s with the ensemble or by yourself.
MR: Montreal is actually very special in that way, because it’s with a lot of [punk] bands that come out of there that I had those initial experiences, like “oh, here’s this community moment that we’re having, and we’re having it because of these musicians on a stage”. But, they don’t want you to feel like they’re on a stage and you’re down there. And so, I’ve learned a lot from watching that.
"For me to say that making art was political wasn’t enough for me."
SA: Because you brought up the word community, I'll ask about another aspect of cultural ritual I equate with your work, and that’s how politics and music work together. How do you view music and its role in community action and protest action and revolutionary action?
MR: I’ve had different conversations with different artists over the years about this and have come to the conclusion that to make art is a political practice. You don’t necessarily have to say so. It just is. And, to be honest, one of the reasons that I felt like I could deal with the American history I’m trying to deal with was because, when I started the project in 2005, I felt like the country was in a good place. It was still weird - those were the Bush years - but the fervor of Bush into Obama? I felt like things were going to turn out okay and I could deal with this history without people wanting to talk about some sort of guilt, or the thing that often gets put on POC [People Of Color] artists, which is like: “oh, you’re black and female and you make music, so your music must be political because you’re black and female.”
And so I used to say that no, Coin Coin isn’t political. But I also have always had a particular interest in creating that social practice and community building, just because I had been around a lot of that growing up. I saw the power of what that could do. And, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. For me to say that making art was political wasn’t enough for me. I felt like I have had so many privileges already, doing what it is that I do, that I have a responsibility to speak up in the same ways that so many people spoke up for me. I feel like I’ve been able to progress so much because so many people have sort of stood up for me, that I have a debt to pay. And that’s why I’m doing the things I’m doing.
I also became desensitized to something, and it wasn’t until I got stopped and almost frisked on the Williamsburg Bridge two summers ago. [I was] just reading this Nietzsche quote on the wall and he [the police officer] stopped me and thought I was doing something illicit. He tried to grab my bag, and luckily I had my bike and was able to place it between him and I. Then I was doing this interview and film short with a filmmaker Laura Hanna about my experience, and she framed it in such a way that I was like, “ah, right.”
You know I watched my father get harassed by the cops every year. I have a brother who’s 250 pounds and 6’5”, an Eric Garner looking fellow who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but is the sort of person that people would pick on just for his size. My uncles and cousins have a choreography around dealing with the police. And, when I first got to New York I was teaching and, you know, you’re always put in these poor urban communities that are a cross-section of people of different colors and from different places. You start to notice the class-chasm that exists for this police culture that people are dealing with. So, I just really got fed up after these shootings - the shootings crossed with the verdicts.
SA: I guess I don’t read it as a political statement that happens outside of your work. It just seems natural. When we have talked about some of the concerts you’ve put together [for Ferguson, et al.], for example, I thought, not that it was amusical or anything that wasn’t you, but it’s more of an action that stems from who you are.
MR: A lot of the reason that those things can happen, as well, is that I’m at a point in this phase of creativity where I have access to a lot of resources. So I’m able to call up a venue based on my track record and set up some last minute things. And that’s why a lot of those things could happen, but I also have a really deep belief in grass roots movement. I don’t believe in action that happens through this government. History has shown that that’s not the way change is created. I’ve been exposed to the power of what happens through one person, supported by community, to do something.
And, I feel that one of the things that’s lacking in the “scene” here is that we’re not able to come together as a community because it’s so expensive. So, the other reason I created the Coin Coin work, the ensemble stuff, was so that I could try to build community in a better way. When I started the project I literally made a list - you’re on that list! - of all the musicians I know by instrument. I was thinking of how I could work with all these people.
SA: When you were talking about grass roots movements, there was a thought I had that I’m kind of always looking for, so it may not exist in this case. But, just in the sound world on this record, there’s a feeling of Transcendentalism: [Henry David] Thoreau specifically. That kind of naturalism, It almost feels like in certain parts of Coin Coin Chapter 3, you’re walking through the woods and there are stories being thrown at you from all angles.
MR: I had a Thoreau period when I was 17, 18, 19…and that did a lot for me. It still influences me now. My value system is not about things that I can have. My value system is about things that I can do for other people. I never completely got from Thoreau that it was about doing for other people, but I liked how it was about going back inside of self and understanding the importance of simple living. I think we all kind of plug into that, and the record is purposely made in the way that it is in terms of…I’m really trying not to get into a lot of gear in terms of creating.
I’ve been experimenting with field recordings in these abandoned spaces. The foundation layer of the record is the trip I took through the [American] South last year; through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana by myself on Amtrak and Greyhound .
The whole trip was just about collecting sounds and talking to people and trying to have an understanding. The belly of the history of this country sits in these places. I wanted to have a better understanding of what that’s about. Realizing that we get to travel all over the world, yeah?
MR: Well, no place is as exotic to me as Mississippi. I’ve done some of the Coin Coin work with ensembles in different cities, and I was going to these places to sort of lay track as they say. You know, Birmingham has a really interesting improv scene. Houston has some really interesting things going. There are these little pockets and I noticed that even when I played the music with musicians in Baltimore the energy that they access is very different. I keep the music as conceptually open as I can so that people can infuse their naturalness in it, [which] changes the scope of the music in a really beautiful way. And so, if I could just get my act together, I would be doing a lot more of that.
But the basis of the record was about creating a sort of fever dream and trying to do it in the most lo-fi way possible; to stick to my own punk aesthetic of, “We’re going to start a band and our first show is in two weeks and none of us play instruments”. (laugh) I know some very good bands that started that way. “We’ll figure it out.” “We’ll do it.”
I spent some time in Montreal starting a community-based improv collective for at risk youth at a drop in shelter. They wanted a music program that came out of our tradition of improv but also came from that punk thing of just putting them in this room with instruments…and that’s literally what it was. “You sit at the drumset, here’s a saxophone, I’m going to show you how to put it together and we’ll see what happens.” I saw the power of what that does for people. And so I would really love to do the Coin Coin music with musicians in prisons. Why I want to do those things, I don’t completely understand, but for me it makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing with the things that have been given to me.
SA: If you’re doing it with different ensembles and players with different levels of experience how do you put the pieces together?
MR: Again, dealing with Montreal, I knew so many musicians in that town who are incredible improvisers but couldn’t read music. They were really coming out of hardcore - I don’t like the word because it’s derogatory in a sense but - gypsy tradition. And then I went into these music programs where you’d be around people who were killer technicians, but when they improvised the heart wasn’t there. So, I wanted to figure out a way to access heart and play music with my friends. That’s another reason I decided to deal with graphic notation. They could improvise looking at image. And they could really plug in by looking at the image and dealing with their ear.
There was one rare show, the premiere of Coin Coin Chapter 1 in Montreal where it was myself, and members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion. They didn’t realize that I had pulled so much inspiration of making the work for musicians like them. They kind of closed up a little bit. I had to tell them not think of this is as some fancy piece for improvisers. This is a piece for musicians. And they are musicians. But, it’s the Montrealers that really inspired me to want to create; going to rock shows and seeing them play entire shows from memory. I would like to do that also with this music. Stand on the stage; no bells, no whistles, just instruments, and these things that we’ve practiced together.
The only aspect missing from this project, which I don’t know if I’ll ever bring in, is just the aspect of working in a band. I’ve played on records of some of those bands and watching them put a song together where it’s a collective thing of…I kind of miss that a little bit and at some point I will do that again because it takes a certain weight off but it also creates this spontaneous instantness that I love.
SA: And you can tell sonically.
MR: Oh, you can totally tell! And, it’s hard sometimes because people think that I put this project together so I could throw things together, but really it’s because I wanted to find a way to build community in an instantaneous kind of way with a common language that I feel could work. The minus is that you’re not going to get the sound of a band. Sometimes I’ll use the same core musicians but what ends up happening is that it stays the same and I don’t like that. I kind of like the mix and match of sound. And so the solo record was hard to do because it was just me. It made me think that maybe this music is not about what I can do. Can I do this? I don’t know if I can do this. I would call that record more of a sort of draft. Like it’s a document of a draft of something that I would like to develop further.
Brian McWhorter on the Sports Ritual; Ritual and Practice
Sound American: First of all, you are maybe the least obvious choice of participants for a series of discussions around ritual, but there are two things that brought you to mind when I was originally researching this issue. The first is your recent composition for a footrace, which seemed like an interesting take on the culture of sports and how music fits into that tradition. Can you give an overview of the project - how it came to be and what you got out of it as a composer thinking of music for sports?
Brian McWhorter: Last year, I was approached by the producers for the IAAF Junior World Championships to put an orchestra together for the opening ceremonies. Conventionally, this involved performing music for the flag ceremony (when the guest nations parade their flags onto the field) and performing the US National Anthem. Unconventionally, the producers wanted us to provide musical accompaniment for the 10k race itself. At first, I didn't think having music for a footrace would be a good idea - but I ended up agreeing - and composed music for the 30-plus minute race. At Hayward Field in Eugene, the 10k is THE race to watch. And there is this interesting tradition where the audience starts clapping as the runners round into the final 100m stretch of every lap. The audience is loud and they accelerate - and so, it brings up all sorts of rhythmic issues with regard to composition. The clapping is part of the ritual and so iconic, that I couldn't imagine subverting it with my tempo for instance. So I incorporated the audience's accelerated clapping into the piece.
Thinking back, most of the music I have written over the years is some sort of ritual accompaniment. (That's a nice way of saying that all my music is background music.) And I enjoy this. I've always liked what background music can do, and, frankly, I prefer writing music for something greater than my own stupid ideas. I've written for film, dance, theater, and even a piece for a lecture on quantum physics, so adding a footrace to the list didn't seem that unusual. And there are similarities to all of these events and rituals, or, I guess I mean to say that there's always an audience. And while Music for 10,000 Meters had two audiences - the spectators and the runners - the fact that it was a "sports audience" was less on my mind than the simple generative question: what would I want to hear if I were watching - or running - a 10k race?
In my life as a "contemporary classical music" performer, I was always struck with the challenge of building an audience. The question "how can I get people to listen to my music?" quickly became "how can I get people to come to my shows?" But lately, I've been more interested in the question: "Where are people going, and how can I best serve?" It's the same with The Nutcracker I guess. Many of my artsy colleagues joke with me that I've "sold out" by starting Orchestra Next for the Eugene Ballet Company's productions - but if we think about The Nutrcracker as a cultural ritual that involves music, it becomes an incredible opportunity to serve the public. And I maintain that I'm still a "contemporary classical musician" during these productions; everything I've ever learned about music goes into it.
I've been more interested in the question: "Where are people going, and how can I best serve?"
SA: My other connection between you and the idea of ritual in music is a series of articles you wrote about practicing the trumpet: one for younger players and one that is slightly more complex. In both instances, and I may reprint parts here to back my thinking up, you articulate an approach to playing your instrument that seems based in ritual. I don't want to presumeto know where it comes from, but it seems tied to your involvement in Yogic practices. Can you talk a little about these articles specifically and just what role daily rituals/rites play in your musical practice?
BMc: While I was teaching at Princeton (and living in Manhattan), I had these long train rides to frame my obsession with the notion of balanced practice. What would a balanced practice look like? At the time, I was studying Ken Wilber (and his writings on Integral Philosophy), Integral Yoga and any Grand Unifying Theory type of writing that I could get my hands on. I was fascinated with the idea of something comprehensive and balanced - even if I was trying to arrive at it through obsession and lack-of-sleep. So, I developed a map of balanced practice based on these other philosophies. I started to implement it in my own practice, and it turned into a couple little articles, a yearly workshop with Kevin Cobb, and the basis for my current pedagogy.
In essence, practice is divided into 4 quadrants with 3 facets each: the body (body, fundamentals, technique); the mind (mood/motivation, cognitive, creative); culture (roles/responsibility, working with others, working for others); and tools (space, the instrument, the scene). For quite a long time, I immersed myself in this - spending equal amounts of time on each facet. If I had 4 hours to practice, I'd spend an hour on each quadrant and so on. What I discovered is that I had strong aversions to certain facets and strong attachments to others. I'd want to move on to the next part of the practice when working on one thing, and then, for another thing, I'd want to keep going and indulge. This, of course, is something we encounter in a variety of practices - from meditation to yoga and from physical fitness to school. And throughout the entire practice, the goal is to balance 2 energies: ambition and compassion.
While I'm in the middle of taking a year off of the horn because of a nerve problem in my throat, I still use this map to get me back on track when I get out of sync (which, I should add, is all the fucking time). It's not so much about the horn as it is about practice. And, as a musician, I equate the idea of practice with the idea of path.
But don't get me wrong. If you were to watch my daily practice, you would probably arrive at the conclusion that I should be committed. The problem with using the terms practice and path, is that they conjure up all these serious if not holy images. Let me be clear: that's not how my practice looks....at all. It's a mess. A disaster. A cluster-fuck. But having this map in my mind and the notion of balanced ambition and compassion, allows me to better diagnose the situation when things are completely out of hand.
Practice is a ritual for me but I don't think it falls on the space-time continuum very well. In other words, I don't practice at the same time, every day, without fail. That regularity has always been a romantic notion to me and it only occasionally happens. A student once asked a mediation teacher how many hours she practiced every day - to which her answer was: "I practice when I'm walking." I love that.
SA: For whatever reason I hadn't really separated the notion of practice and ritual before. It obviously makes sense. There is a different temporal constraint to each idea: practice being something that, as you say, can be a cluster-fuck, but a life-long and helpful cluster-fuck, while ritual can be something that takes place in a much more precise timeframe. So, to take it in Yoga terms, because I know you have history there, a Yoga practice is something that happens life long in dealing with your day to day schedule, general health, etc. and therefore can be a little less than strict. However,doing asanas or Yogic exercises is probably something that is fairly ritualistic. Do you think of practice versus ritual as a macro/micro thing? Feel free to discount this whole line of thinking, but it just came to me based on what you were talking about.
It's interesting to consider the practice and ritual of yoga and compare it all that we do as musicians.
I think of practice versus ritual as more of an attitude thing. (And I'm certainly bringing in my own associations and biases here.) To my mind, practice is more of an ambitious construct: it's implicit, if not explicit, that you're working toward something - a goal, mastery etc - and you're also responsible for its effectiveness and quality. Ritual, on the other hand, almost seems more of a compassionate construct: a person engaging with a ritual isn't necessarily expecting some sort of improved result; rather, there's an implicit trust (of sorts) that simply being part of a tradition - even if all you do is "go through the motions" - has some long-term effect on your relationship with the subject.
All that to say that it's been helpful for me to reconsider my practice as being more ritualistic. I think it helps loosen my ego...a tad.
Catherine Christer Hennix on ritual and OMSAHATRANAMAM
Sound American: In your work The Electric Harpsichord you scientifically research intonation and form, using complex algebraic formula to inform the sound of the piece. There are also elements of the composition that seem to come from a place less easily quantified, such as a portion of the piece being defined as The Sound of Shiva-OMSAHATSRANAMA. From a purely conceptual point of view, how do you relate the scientific explanatory approach to what may be referred to as a spiritual ground that may be less easily defined?
Catherine Christer Hennix: OMSAHATRANAMAM is not just a "piece" but what I consider my main composition - although I still have not found the most satisfactory way to perform it. The title is in sanskrit and means The Thousand Names Of OM where OḾ stands for the original cosmic sound - known in quantum cosmology as the acoustic peak or the last scattering surface (demarcating the cosmic phase shift from being opaque to becoming transparent for light). OM is anahata nada, meaning the unstruck sound: a non-acoustical sound not transferred by air; as opposed to regular sound waves. Ahata nada, which are conducted by this terrestrial medium, under the assumption that Sound is God (Nadam Brahman), the title can also be understood as a reference to the (more than) thousand names of Allah, ninety-nine of which are traditionally known as the Most Beautiful Names.
This composition is intended by me as the ultimate psychotropic sound experience and for which I am still working with approximations when I work with regular sound waves and which I have summarized in the concept of a Cosmic Shruti Box (Hilbert Space quantum algebras). In terms of anahata, the unstruck sound, the "composition (?)" Raag Tinnitus fits the bill exactly, and I have found the frequencies emitted by the inner ear tunable by external frequencies. In particular, I use my other compositions as a trigger for Raag Tinnitus, the onset of which follows my performances quite regularly. The effect may last for a few hours up to a couple of days. Of course, this effect may be prolonged by total immersion in sound over extended periods of time. Nada Yoga is a practice that expands the awareness of this subtle sound, a discipline fully integrated by the Kirana Gharana tradition of classical Indian music. It has not been fully appreciated that classical Indian music, as established by Druhpad and Kirana Gharanas, is rooted in the spiritual practice of the Chisti Sufi Order and, in particular, the practice of sama and Dhikr, the latter referring to the recollection and rememberance of Allah [the former referring to the listening practice involved in the ritual of Dhikr - Ed.]. It has been known for some time that the tambura, rudra vina and sitar all originated in the late 19th century with members of the Chisti Order. Obviously, Hindustani classical music is very much a product of Islamic culture and remains so till today. (Refer to Ian Nagoski)
It is well known that Islamic geometric patterns are visual representations of certain symmetry groups, i.e. algebraic structures. I have simply extended this concept to what I have called Algebraic Aesthetics whose range spans everything from topos theory to quantum algebras. It is a kit for combinatorics - my concept of electronic sound generation is entirely syntactical which aims at a purely non-figurative sound, a sound without semantics. My goal is to be able to maintain a semantics-free sound also when instruments are combined with a composite electronic sound wave form. If auditory attention is given to "figures" it diminishes the psychotropic force of the sound and the listener gets lost in a bunch of useless thoughts. Rather, the listener should strive towards antenna consciousness meaning cultivating tactics of attention to the nuances of the microtonal universe. For the performing musicians, this discipline becomes even more important. My recent titles work as reminders of this discipline, such as Blues Sama, Blues Dhikr As-Salaam (‘Remembrance of Divine Equilibrium") and Blues Alif Lam Mim (names for three of the mystical letters of the Glorious Qur ́an).
In fact, the name of my ensemble, Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage, is a reminder of the tradition of sama (dervish devotional music session) and its historical roots in Khurasan and from where it spread East and West but also South - to the African continent where it mid-wifed the tradition now known as Blues. However, recent studies suggest that also the North Indian Raga, as it is known to us today, has its roots in the Persian Maqam system. Sufi musicians in Kashmir have a long tradition of mixing ragas and maqams rather indiscriminately. It is not impossible that something similar occurred in Africa (pentatonic maqams?) - but I am not familiar with the Islamic culture on that continent so, presently, I have no opinion about this possibility. However, it would please me to find it confirmed. As you may know, I am since sometime mixing together various features of maqam, blues and raga in order to arrive at a more formless form which bypasses the usual criteria of what music is supposed to be in European culture. I am very pleased with the results so far.
As to the place of science in all of this, I recall that music was already established as an Islamic science by al-Farabi, a tradition that was imported to Europe in the form of Quadrivium to which also astronomy, optics and mechanics counted. However, it was expelled from science when Europeans decided that music was just another form of entertainment. Today, music seems to be welcomed back into science via the so-called neuroscience. From that perspective, I consider the listener as a dynamical soft condensed matter system far from equilibrium and whose internal signal path and transmission systems can be tuned by exposure to external sound sources. I have connected the psychotropic force of sound with Bose-Einstein-like signal condensation and soliton-like carrier pulses. My Infinitary Composite Sound Wave Form Composition Soliton(e) Star (2003 - Present) was my first effort in this direction in more than twenty years. It is, of course, entirely anachronistic to speak about my work as "compositions", or "music" but I have not had occasion to refine my vocabulary. I find it disappointing, however, when people refer to my work as "drone music ". Since when has Hindustani music been referred to as "drone music"? Or [John] Coltrane ́s composition Africa? When I started out in 1969 to compose in my present style there was no such thing as "drone music". It was just called "music" or, more precisely, (American) "avant-garde music" . About what happened thereafter I was never informed.
SA: Moving from the conceptual to the sound content of your work, there is a certain presence to the listener (at least in my estimation) that suggests meditative psychological states. It’s this feeling from a listener’s perspective that brought you to mind for this issue’s theme of ritual. How much of the end result of hallucinatory or meditative mind-state is present in your mind when you’re composing the piece? Is it related to a specific tradition, religious or otherwise?
CCH: Unqualified, the concept “ritual” covers almost all human actions - more or less.
I assume that you have perceived my performance practice as somewhat unconventional in that the audience is encouraged to sit on the floor rather than on chairs and that I use incense, light and computer animation as extras. Besides that, the audience is encouraged to remove their shoes, not to talk and, above all, not applaud when we finish but keep listening to the sustained electronic pitches, which continue until everyone has left. (Thus, connecting with Raag Tinnitus) None of these elements are intended as part of some "given" ritual. Rather, my intention is to bring about optimal premises for both musicians and audience to have a sustained out-of- body experience in an altered state of consciousness. This does not exclude, however, that individuals among audience and musicians include some element of ritual for their attendance.
But I would call these private, individual rituals that are adopted for the purpose of maximizing the experience. However, I am quite unsatisfied with the venues that are offered for my sound. I am in favor of the establishment of what might be called Sonic Shrines - locations that are dedicated to a permanent sound with which musicians and audience can interact within a 24/7 time frame. For this case, I would insist on the importance of making available servings of tea, sweets and small dishes to all attending- and annexed: a place where it is possible to take a nap. With this structure in place, my concept comes close to the traditional sama and Dhikr - to which anthropologists have long ascribed a ritualistic element.
However, rather than thinking in terms of ritual, I would frame this modality in terms of awareness and mindfulness while recognizing that individual actions such as pronouncing OM HARI OM or the Basmala may well be considered ritualistic - or even drinking a cup of fresh mint tea. While there is an inevitable collective aspect to the audience experience - which might be considered as a controlled ritual - there is an equally inevitably individual aspect of this experience that leaves the control element ambiguous. I am not sure how to handle this terminology. In addition, I almost never have a chance to perform in public so I have had very little interaction with my audience ... and, as I was just saying, the venues available are quite unsatisfactory for any collective or private ritual to take place there. I can basically only play in my studio. The ongoing desacrification of sound spaces risks marginalizing every aspect of ritual music; be it contemporary or ancient. In some sense, my studio in Berlin functions as a sonic shrine and by housing a pair of Pandit Pran Nath Custom Concert Tamburas qualifies it, I guess, as a sacred place in this, otherwise, outpost of civilization.
SA: Another aspect of your music, which I came to through Henry Flynt’s writing about The Electric Harpsichord and your subsequent conversations together was the idea of creating “something outside to give you a gratifying impression of intrinsic worth.” I don’t want to imply religious connections where there may certainly be none, but this seems to be a similar effect of religious rituals as well as cultural ritual such as consumerism or protest. Do you see an element of ritual being involved in the attempt to bring about this impression? Is this still even a valid question about your music, or are you moving toward different goals now?
CCH: In following sharia and tariqa of Islam, I do not personally experience these elements as rituals per se although this following might be interpreted ritualistically. I tend to perceive rituals as empty of meaning performed as a desperate last attempt to achieve something unattainable by other means. I do not believe in the efficacy of wishful thinking. In that sense I do not consider Salat (Prayer) a ritual but as a way of inducing the experience of lucid, sacred dreams or disappearing in the mystical meanings of the Arabic words of the Glorious Qur ́an.
Cantor Joshua Breitzer on Nusach in Jewish Life and Tradition
Sound American: To begin, can you give a brief overview of the role that music plays in the Jewish religious life; specifically the role of a cantor?
Cantor Josh Breitzer: Music plays an essential role in every aspect of Jewish life. Levitical choirs and orchestras made the ancient Temples in Jerusalem resound with every sacrifice and festival. The sages who founded the first synagogues in Israel (Masorites, from the Hebrew masorti, "traditional"), developed written systems of vocalization and cantillation to preserve the art of publicly reciting of the Scriptures. As communal worship liturgy became standardized over the middle ages, talented bards called paytanim composed and sang prayer poetry called piyyutim, which provided further layers of nuance and interpretation to the core texts and which communities incorporated into their rites for different occasions. Nusach hat'fillah, or traditional prayer-chant formulae, refers to the collection of melodic motifs orally transmitted from the Temple musicians, the Masorites, the paytanim, and medieval Jewish worship leaders living throughout Northern Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
There is a nusach for every season, every holiday, and for every time of the day. There is a nusach to accompany private study and a nusach to accompany public prayer. And wherever Jews have lived, they have incorporated the melodies and folksongs of the prevailing population into their nusach, giving it nuance and rooting them in that part of the world.
Beginning in the 14th-15th centuries, the shaliach tzibbur ("emissary of the congregation") was the title given to the one who led his Jewish community in prayer. That individual gradually took on the additional titles of ba'al t'fillah ("master of prayer") and hazzan (related to "visionary"). In 19th century Vienna, the hugely influential hazzan Salomon Sulzer, casting himself as a Jewish J.S. Bach, took on Bach's title of Vorbeter, popularly translated as "precentor" or "cantor." Sulzer harmonized nusach hat'fillah in the context of Western classical music theory and, though he was not the first to notate it, his setting of the nusach became the most widespread. Sulzer is regarded as the first cantor in the modern sense of the term.
Today, cantors are the vessels of Jewish musical tradition and innovators of public prayer. They lead worship, teach across the generations through melodies new and old, and help Jewish communities envision and enrich their spiritual lives. Instrumental accompaniment in worship, generally frowned upon since the destruction of the Temple, became commonplace among progressive Jewish communities during Sulzer's time and is now the norm in America among Reform Jews and increasingly among Conservative Jews. Women have been cantors in the progressive Jewish world for forty years and have achieved parity with men in authority and number. Cantors regularly partner with rabbis, Jewish educators, communal workers, and lay leaders to keep 21st century Jewish living authentic, relevant, and vibrant.
SA: In talking to others for this issue; some of whom are involved in music for religious ritual or practice and others that are involved in more cultural rituals, it seems that the ritual part of their work or art or tradition is caught up in creating a space in which the participants can feel something specific. I don't know if this is too sensitive a topic, and if so, please just let me know. Is there some truth in this idea for you within the Jewish community? Do the nusach open up a kind of group space or does it act more as a part of daily Jewish life? If it does open a space, can you describe it?
JB: The focal point of many synagogues' sanctuary design is a phrase in Hebrew, da lifnei mi atah omeid, "know before whom you stand." To the one leading worship, this refers simulaneously to both God and the worship community. When I lead worship I'm less interested in what the participants are feeling and more interested in what I'm feeling. If I create space for me to be able to pray, my experience thus far indicates that other participants are also moved to pray. Of course I also need to be cognizant of who those other participants are and plan my musical choices accordingly. As a cantor I have a personal attachment to using the right nusach as much as I can, but most people in my community are less attached to the right nusach and more attached to the congregational melodies they've grown up with. And not all cantors are as personally attached to nusach as I am. I think that in the best cases of public prayer, the leader chooses musical settings that allow for everyone present to find at least one moment to feel prayerful.
SA: I'm interested in how the nusach change as the community moves and grows and changes. Often, acts of ritual have an air of the ancient; the unchangeable, and yet you talk about how these prayer-chants are infused as the community changes and moves or how they stay contemporary. How do you feel that affects their meaning and use?
JB: One of my teachers defines nusach (plural nus'cha'ot) as "a set of infinite variations on a theme that nobody remembers." This is another way of saying that there is no known urtext, no ultimate original version of the prayer chants. We have only the oral tradition and approximately 200 years' worth of musical manuscripts written by at least as many cantors, all of whom were influenced by their nascent memories as well as the ambient soundscape of their adult lives. Just as Jews have always worked to reinterpret text for their time and place, I would argue that Jews have always worked to reinterpret music for their time and place. Does nusach change as the community moves and grows and changes? It has to, lest it die out.
In the late 19th century, leaders of the growing American Jewish community, mostly of Western/Central European origin but with the Eastern European influx already underway, sought to create a single liturgy and single nusach that would reflect a variety of backgrounds yet unify everyone under one ritual "roof" here in America. They wanted to call it minhag America, the "American rite." Yet as more and more Eastern European Jews came over it became harder and harder to create a rite that would work for everyone; it was inevitably either too traditional or too radical. Thus was born Jewish denominationalism: between 1875-1900, the Reform and Conservative movements came to be. Since then there have been various other formal attempts to resurrect the notion of a minhag America - and all the while, American Jews have organically come up with their own rites and melodies, influenced as ever by larger trends in American worship and music. The various social movements of the 1960s, for instance, led to a wave of new Jewish worship music patterned after summer camp songs and folk ballads. The establishment of the State of Israel and its cultural palette tinged the American Jewish musical scene as well.
Americans now live in a time of pluralism, of spiritual seeking, of a renewed interest in traditional folkways and cultures. All this is reflected in Jewish worship. And to me, cantors have a key role to play in facilitating their communities' explorations through deeds, prayers, and learning.