“…We should mention also a feature found in some African music that involves both form and polyphony, namely the tendency – in some pieces – for a number of apparently unrelated things to be going on at the same time. Some of this is due to the development of complex rhythmic polyphony, the simultaneous presentation of which seem, to the Western listener, to have little in common. It is hard to say whether the African listener feels all of these rhythms to be part of one over-all rhythmic structure (as a Westerner can conceive all of the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united), or whether the African can conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…”
My main source for used books is Gift’N’Thrift, a Mennonite thriftstore. I get a lot of cassettes and LP’s there, too. And picture frames. I recently picked up Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents by Bruno Nettl, the book from whence cometh the passage quoted above. It was worth every penny I paid for it – all fifty of them. It’s got some interesting observations and general insights and is inadvertently funny in its patronizing ethnocentricity, although, published in 1965, it came a little late to be really hilarious or to qualify as what I call “double anthropology”, i.e. anthropology that reveals as much about its creator as its subject . For a stunning example of that, check out the short film, African Pigmy Thrills, from the late ‘30’s, in which a group of Pigmies (sic) construct a bridge of vines across a raging river while some smugly asinine narrator embarrasses all white people with his condescension and pathetic attempts at humor. White people sure are a bunch of assholes.
Please notice that Mr. Nettl includes Africa (sub-Saharan, to be precise; North Africa he excludes from this work on the grounds that its folk and traditional musics have been heavily influenced by middle-Eastern peoples and are therefore properly “Asian” and not within the scope of his book, which is a ridiculous and specious argument) – Mr. Nettl includes sub-Saharan Africa among the “Western Continents”, which would seem to make sub-Saharan Africans “Westerners”, but he still makes a distinction between “Westerners”, by which he means people who “can conceive of all the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united”, and “Africans”, who may or may not “conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…” and who probably spend a lot of their time running around naked in the jungle spearing and eating each other. That the word “Negro” doesn’t appear in the quote above does not mean it doesn’t appear repeatedly in Folk and Trad…, although that really doesn’t reflect badly on Bruno, as “Negro” was the proper term in the early ‘60’s. Still, the chapter on African music is far more insulting than the chapters on European folk and traditional musics, though those were hardly celebratory, referring as they did to “gesunkenes Kulturgut”, which sounds like something Hitler would have wanted to eliminate. Why Nettl chose to write a book about the traditional folk music of people he had such distain for is beyond me, but the next chapter is about “The American Indians” so it should be pretty amusingly racist.
But what I really wanted to address here was the idea of “music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena”, because that’s standard operating procedure here at the BDSR Hondo. The majority of BDSR releases have layers of shit going on. Sometimes, there’s a riff or other repeated element that runs through the entire thing as a unifier, but it’s not unusual for us to just pile a bunch of sounds on top of each other and then turn up the volume on the track that sounds the least awful. In any case, there’s a lot going on. Minimalism ain’t our thing, man.
Way back, many moons ago, there was this acid-casualty around town. I worked with him and he was one of the few people I could almost always count on to be in the mood to drink Night Train and smoke pot when I was which was always. He owned a four-track and sometimes we would make a bunch of noise in his kitchen. It was from him that I stole the idea of recording independent jams and layering them. Last time I saw that guy, five years ago, I think, he was sixty pounds heavier, had a bunch of scars on his face from driving a pick-up into the side of a moving train and was muttering some paranoid gibberish about crop circles and chubacabras. I’m not making that up.
A significant portion of the bands I’ve been in in the past decade used layered unrelated phenomena. The ones that didn’t didn’t because I was outvoted. Piles of random sounds all trying to squirm their way to the top of the mix is what I like when I’m making music. I like it when other people are making music too, which is why I have numerous recordings of African folk and traditional music and not one Bach fugue.
Ephemeral sounds are good too. A few years ago, some other guy I know was talking about his recently purchased Robert Johnson box set. He was complaining about the static and hiss, a result of primitive recording techniques and the effects of age on the masters. He even managed to bitch about the fact that there were other sounds audible in some of the songs – Johnson’s creaky chair, car horns outside the hotel room where the recording took place, somebody coughing. I was stunned that a) anybody would buy a box set by Robert Johnson as opposed to Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Henry Thomas, Bukka White or any of the dozens of other country blues Negroes who picked and slid circles around Robert fuckin’ Johnson; and b) that anybody would complain about the static and hiss and car horns and coughing on old country blues recordings. The ephemeral sounds are and always have been intrinsic aspects of the pleasure of old country blues for me.
What’s that song? The one where Charley Patton’s voice rises up out of the crackling fuzz like a specter pushing his head up through the graveyard fog, shouting “Loooooord, have mercy on my wicked soul”? That hits me every time. I swear I can’t listen to Patton when I’m driving alone. I did it once, going across the mountain for some reason, and I had to pull over. Can’t drive them mountain roads when your eyes are blurry with tears. Jesus. Patton is a hungry ghost, moaning across an ocean of time. Then there’s Henry Thomas, whose Pan pipes still cut through the years of tape decay like shimmering razors though cornbread. Beautiful.
Layers upon layers, waiting to be discovered, like the meanings in myths, like how you can know someone for decades and still be surprised when they mention some insignificant event from their childhood because you never knew that. Like how the moon can sometimes catch your eye as you walk in from the car and make you pause, even though it’s the same fucking moon it’s always been. Like a detail in the Norman Rockwell print that Nana has had in her dining room forever, but which you never noticed before. All the elements are always there, but we pass them by. We fail to hear the melody under the noise or we just look through the reality because it doesn’t advance our agendas. Sad.
I’m touching on different things here: my deliberate mashing-together of unrelated recordings, accidental happenings on old blues sides, the unnoticed beauties of the plain and simple world around us – yet they somehow seem to go together. We miss so much. We don’t appreciate all there is. We don’t get it. We judge things as being “good” or “bad” depending on how well they conform to a notion we hold of how things ought to be. Then, like Bruno Nettl, we display our utter inability to truly appreciate anything which is foreign or contrary to our cherished prejudices.
I recommend Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents, I really do, not because it’s especially special in any way, but because, recommending it gives me an opportunity to recommend picking up any and every 50¢ book that looks vaguely interesting. Obscure used books are gold. Ephemeral noise is priceless. Norman Rockwell prints are sublime.
According to the back cover, Primitive Religion by Paul Radin is “a now-classic treatment by a noted anthropologist of the nature and origin of primitive religion and the influences that have shaped its expression.” No argument here, but what really stuck with me after I read it was not the fact that Radin advanced a hypothesis about the deification of deceased shamans that contradicted the “amazing psychologizing” (?) of his contemporaries, Durkheim, Marett and Lowie, but the way of thinking about religion and peoples’ reactions to it that Radin sets up in the first chapter. What follows is my paraphrasing of Radin’s ideas and a bit of free association.
Religion is not logical. Religion is about the experience of life, the feeling of being alive. The myths are coded stories about the relationship of the individual to the world around her/him and the other people, animals, plants and spirits that share that world. Myths are designed and refined to evoke feelings. If some myths also have some logical point to make that’s great, but that is not the primary purpose of myth. Rituals are equally free from logic. There have certainly been people who genuinely believed that killing a boar in the shadow of a standing stone would ensure a military victory, just as there are people who believe that a priest’s invocation changes bread and wine into flesh and blood, but those people are concretizing the metaphor. The idea that a ritual can have an effect on the physical world is properly called “magic”. Religion changes people on the inside. Religion does not make it rain.
Some people feel more religious than others. On this, Radin proposes a bell curve of religiosity. On one side, the people who never feel religious. They see a tree, a river or a dove and what they see is a tree, a river or a dove. They may have a sense of curiosity or appreciation of beauty, but they do not experience the tree as a sort of kindred spirit; they do not understand the river as the life-sustaining energy of a God or Goddess poured out so that the people may live; they do not sense that the dove is somehow symbolic of their own psyche. They don’t get it. These people may participate in the religion of their community for other reasons, indeed, at points in the past they were compelled to so do, and they may grow to appreciate what religion offers, but for the moment, they’re atheists. Gods bless ‘em.
On the other side of the bell curve are the people who experience religion constantly. These people are walking around in a world of wonder. Every cloud, beetle and rabbit seems like a miracle, pulsing with the incomprehensible radiance of God. Everywhere they look, they see the fingerprint of the Creator and never stop being amazed. The most commonplace happening impresses them as a divine act. I’m one of these.
As anyone who knows about bell curves knows, the ends are where the weirdoes are. The vast majority of people – 90% or so – are in the middle. Most people have some religious feelings some of the time. Actually, most people have some religious feelings at particular times: times of transition. The phrase “crisis points” has been used, but I prefer “times of transition”. Transition or change needn’t be equated with crisis. Times of transition fall into two categories: the life cycle and the annual cycle. Within each category, there are four specific points: in the life cycle, birth, puberty, marriage and death; in the annual cycle, the solstices and equinoxes. At those times, people tend to want some kind of something or other to commemorate the change or celebrate or make them feel more secure or something or other. Actually, people tend to really suck at knowing what they want. People tend to have some vague idea that something isn’t actually exactly the way they think it’s sort of supposed to be or something, but that’s about as detailed as they’re able to get.
Imagine some hunter/gatherer type, sitting down by the creek staring off into space having some vague, unspecifiable thoughts about something that he can’t quite figure out and he notices that downstream a ways is that weird old guy from the village who’s always wandering around staring at clouds and muttering a bunch of shit that nobody understands, so he goes to talk to the guy about whatever he’s got on his mind which happens to be “Ya know, I came down to the creek to get a drink and I saw some tadpoles and I thought about frogs and then I started thinking about my kids and then I started thinking about my grandpa and then I just kinda zoned out for a while.”
And the old coot says “Was it like you saw that the generations in your own family were like the generations of frogs and tadpoles and then you felt connected to the entire universe in a way that you don’t understand and can’t articulate?”
At that point, the guy’s mind is totally blown because that’s pretty much what he was thinking, yes, but he didn’t have it in those words and probably never would have. That doesn’t have to happen very many times before the weird old coot becomes the local visionary. As people turn to him more and more, he develops his own insights further because he has to present his thoughts to other people and he’s encouraged to come up with more insights and some activities and that’s pretty much the beginning of a local cult. Local cults grow, become more elaborate, merge with each other and eventually become religions. The visionaries – shamans, medicine men/women, whatever –develop rituals and myths that the people accept if they satisfy the people’s needs. The italics are important. The majority of people are busy putting food on the table, raising the kids, fulfilling their social obligations and all the other business of living. They are not going to devote precious resources to activities that don’t satisfy them in some way. Weirdoes like me are happy to barely get by and don’t care if everybody thinks we’re weirdoes, but most folks enjoy a certain amount of security and status. If a shaman decides to cut off his own nose, he might impress everyone with his aestheticism, but he’s going to have a hard time convincing everybody else to follow his lead. If he keeps on insisting that the people do ridiculous shit that doesn’t benefit them in any way, he’s gonna find himself noseless and alone soon enough, if not sacrificed. The people tend to have needs to be satisfied at certain points – the transitions times mentioned above. Everybody experiences the cardinal points of the year together, so those become the major rituals. The life cycle transitions are just as important, but needn’t include the entire community, though they could. (Puberty initiations tend to be community affairs because it’s possible to gather up all the boys or girls who are between twelve and sixteen and initiate them together. There are other benefits to group initiations of adolescents: teenagers are at a point when they want to be part of groups; group initiation fosters bonding among age cohorts, who will be peers for the rest of their lives; teenagers are a troublesome bunch of surly little hellions who need to have their energies directed toward the general good or they’ll run around causing problems, scalping each other, getting each other pregnant, starting gangsta rap groups and other undesirable shit.) People seem to want some kind of ritual to occur on a regular schedule. There’s a huge difference between a quiet, boring forty-five minute church service once a week and the physically and emotionally intense n/um tchai of the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert which happens almost every night, but they are both regularly scheduled rituals which more or less satisfy the people who use them. These regular rituals keep people connected to each other and provide them with a way of smoothing through the daily conflicts and random vagaries. And then, you know, sometimes people just wanna talk about stuff. Religion is all about what’s going on in the unconscious mind most of the time so it shouldn’t be surprising if shamans sometimes act like therapists.
The visionaries invent the rituals and myths. The people accept them. The myths and rituals then become the property of the group, passed along down the generations, refined, reinterpreted when necessary, shaped by the common need. (In some very few and very recent cases, this beautiful and beneficial process was derailed and hierarchal organizations developed which exploited the peoples’ need for myth and ritual for their own gain – I’m referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam – but these are anomalies. Tragically, the blatant falseness of the three big monotheisms has caused many to reject religion altogether and so deprive themselves of the many good things that religion can offer.)
We, the visionaries, would, of course, continue to wander around gazing at stars whether the rest of you paid attention or not, but we do appreciate your attention, kindness and occasional gifts of food and animal skins. We will do the best we can to satisfy your spiritual needs, answer your silly questions and circumcise your teenage boys with sharpened bones. Yes, we are all connected to the entire universe in some way which cannot be understood or articulated. Yes, we are all one. And if I don’t receive my regular offering of sacred tobacco and coffee very soon, I am going to call up my Spirit Helpers and send them to your huts to rip your guts out of your assholes.
I’ve been mediating a lot lately. I attend a regular mediation session which involves some discussion – we read a passage, meditate for twenty minutes, talk about our meditation experience. I’ve also been meditating at home for about 30 minutes a few times a week.
The group is made up of a couple dozen people from different backgrounds and with different spiritual identities. Some are Christians; the others are I don’t know what. I doubt that anybody there is as nontraditional and ecumenically pagan as your humble Espresso Shaman. Without putting on airs, I think it’s safe to say nobody there has logged as many hours in meditation or spirit traveling as I have either, but they’re good folks and participating in the group helps me to remember to sit still once in a while. I tend to approach life like I’m storming the beach on D-Day, which is a lot of fun and the proper approach to some situations, but not all.
Joseph Campbell defined meditation as “the intentional stopping of the spontaneous action of the mind stuff.” I think that’s in The Power Of Myth, but I don’t remember which episode. You’ll just have to watch the whole thing. The benefit in stopping the mind stuff, he explains, is that it allows you to see things as they are. He uses the image of a lake: as long as the surface of the water is being rippled by the wind, all reflections are broken and fragmented. Only when the water is still are things reflected clearly. As long as the mind stuff is agitated, the mind cannot perceive anything but broken and fragmented perceptions.
That sounds pretty good, but it’s never worked for me. I have a frantic and frenetic mind, enhanced by the liberal and frequent application of bitter, black beverages containing the best of all possible drugs, caffeine. My mind stuff doesn’t stop. I have multiple tracks, all playing, all the time, a constant gamelan of brain noise. This isn’t unusual. Everybody at the meditation session talks about the difficulty they have getting their mind stuff to stop. Everybody has some brain noise. Most people just live with it and don’t even notice until they get to a mediation session and start trying to make it stop.
I don’t try to stop the brain noise. I just let it go on and on, unimpeded. The clatter and din inside my head are just part of how I perceive reality and it doesn’t matter. When I’m working on visual art, I sometimes have music going, sometimes not, but when I do, it’s usually of the long-form, instrumental variety, the kind of stuff that can easily be tuned down to a low buzz. Some reviewers have mentioned the fact that some BDSR releases work better when they’re background noise, which is true. I don’t know if those reviewers knew or guessed that that was deliberate. The background noise application is something I’m actively striving for, without eliminating the possibility of active listening. It’s a fine line, but there’s good on either side, so it all works.
The brain noise doesn’t mean anything. The stuff that happens inside the head is not real. If you can’t tell the difference between what’s happening inside your head and what’s happening outside your head, then you, my friend, are a schizophrenic. This is a very basic observation, but it’s one that had to be pointed out to me. Several years ago, I was talking with a knowledgeable friend about the noise in my brain and he said “So? Just ignore it. It’s not real.” I was somewhat blown away. It’s so obvious. After that, mediation became easy. I stopped trying to accomplish anything with my mind stuff. All I need to do to meditate is to sit still. That’s it. Sit still and let the mind stuff/brain noise do whatever it does. When I meditate frequently, ignoring the brain noise becomes automatic. I’m sitting here right now with all this jibber-jabber happening behind my eyes and I have no idea what the voices are saying.
People at the meditation session talk about how hard it is to stop the mind stuff. When it’s my turn, I say I don’t try. I just let it roll on. They look at me like I’ve just said something that’s so fucking crazy it just might be right.
That’s my only contribution to the group. Other than the possibility of ignoring the brain noise until it subsides to a low and easily ignorable drone around the edges, I have nothing to say about meditation.
A friend called t’other day and asked if I wanted to work with him refinishing a hardwood floor. I told him I’d never done that kind of work, but I’d show up and learn as fast as possible. As it turned out, he’d never done that kind of work either, so we were even. I’m fortunate to have a number of friends who approach work with this kind of fearlessness. So what if I don’t know how to do the job I’m committing to do? I’ll figure it out and if I need any help I’ll hire a guy who also doesn’t know what he’s doing.
We did the big sanding and then the other guy went to get us more coffee, leaving me to the detail work on the stairs with this little power sander. I was hunched down over the thing, buzzing away on the risers when I realized that beneath the electric motor drone I could hear a high-pitched “deity-deet-deet”*, which was definitely coming from the sander. It was a pleasant little sound, rhythmically similar to a dot-matrix printer and tantalizingly reminiscent of something I couldn’t place, though I think it was from a movie – radar or sonar sound effect, or a computer on a space ship, or something. Or maybe the sound that accompanies the printer when a hot news flash comes in over the wire. Whatever. I really enjoyed listening to it, barely audible over the hum and not unlike the melodies buried in the scree on Lou Reeds’ Metal Machine Music, definitely the best thing Blue Lou ever did after White Light/White Heat and the only thing he did post-VU that I can stand.
Music is everywhere. Well, sound is everywhere and it is possible to listen to any sound as music. I really became consciously aware of this in ’03 or so. I was living in a little house that was gradually crumbling into its own basement as a result of shoddy construction and the vibrations in the ground from the rock quarry at the end of the road. At that point, I still had music blasting most of the time. I went outside to smoke a cigarette on the porch one sunny day and as I sat there, I became increasingly captivated by the sounds around me: low rumble of trucks and bulldozers to the right, medium-range car traffic to the left, high-end birds in the trees above. Occasionally, a door would slam somewhere in the sound-field, or a dog would bark. I had been experimenting with making music for a year or so at that point – had gotten used to thinking of my own compositions from a technical angle, separating the various components and arranging them in the two-speaker stereo arena. That day on the porch I realized that any and all sounds can be heard the same way. I started trying it out in different places and found it to be pretty easy and pleasurable in most situations.
I was reading a lot about Zen at that time. And I was becoming much more active in seeking out weird and challenging music. My drunk’n’cranked twenties, when I had some kind of aggressive artpunknoiserock blasting 24/7 were a few years gone and I was primed and ready for what Pauline Olivernos called “Deep Listening”. I began to deeply listen to all of the sounds in my environment. The hardest thing to overcome is actual music, most of which is popular and therefore utterly banal and grating. Traffic noise, industrial machinery, gunshots, trucks backing up, espresso machines, all these and more can be incorporated into a symphony of sounds which is pleasing; Eminem cannot.
Some friends and I went up to NYC for the Boredoms 7/7/07 show in Brooklyn Park – the Boredoms plus seventy-seven drummers. We got there a few hours before the show, but there were several thousand people in line ahead of us. Somebody official eventually came down the line informing people that the park was full, no more getting in, but that we could sit on the bank of the East River and hear the show. My friends were only sort of interested in the Boredoms, so they went back to Manhattan to I don’t know what they did, but I stayed. The Boredoms + 77 were clearly audible – and so was the river, the traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, the seagulls, the tugboats, the taxi horns and all the other sounds of the city, which I would not have been able to hear if I had been standing in front of a mammoth wall of speakers. Not being able to get in to the park caused me to sit in one place for three hours and listen, which allowed me to hear the Boredoms and New York City. Sure, I’d’ve liked to’ve gotten in for the visual experience, but I had a better listening adventure than I could’ve asked for. Random noises certainly suit the Boredoms.
In one of my earlier bands, a free improv power trio, the other two people were the editors of all recorded material. As far as I was concerned, every single duffed note, feedback scree and drummer tantrum was solid gold and should be kept. They were much more selective about cutting out things that didn’t “sound good”, which caused me to shout “Shit! None of it sounds ‘good’!” on multiple occasions. I did soak up some of their arguments – I do edit out the most heinously offensive and annoying boring bits of BDSR jams – but free improv is free improv. Sometimes it doesn’t flow like molten chocolate – but then when it does, it’s all the sweeter for the bumbling mass of mess that the good stuff came out of.
Horace Walpole (1717-1797) invented the word “serendipity”, which means “a happy accident” or “a pleasant discovery”. He got the idea from a Persian fairytale, “The Three Princes Of Serendip”, the title characters of which were constantly happening upon wonderful discoveries when they were not looking for them. I would suggest that, while they were not looking for specific things, they were looking – they had their eyes and minds open, ready to receive. Frequent shoppers at thrift stores know that you don’t go thrifting with a goal in mind; you go looking for what’s there. This is a delightful and very profitable way of addressing reality. Everywhere I go, I know there are countless wonderful things for me to see, hear, touch, taste, smell and otherwise be aware of. I have shelves filled with amazing and weird trinkets and artifacts, very few of which have any value in a monetary sense, all of which are interesting and unique. I have spent untold hours sitting around in the woods with my daughter, identifying for her all the sounds around us and had the pleasure of having her return the favor – “You hear that sound, Daddy? That’s a sick-ay-duh.” It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The world is a wonderful place, filled with sound for our listening pleasure – as long as nobody is playing Eminem.
* I typed “deety-deet-deet”, auto-correct made it “deity-deet-deet”, and I decided that was fine and dandy.
**Sometimes she likes it loud. She is a big Acid Mothers Temple fan but doesn’t like the No-Neck Blues Band at all. Go figure.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.