Friday, December 5, 2014

Finding the Hidden Music

O Silver trumpets be you lifted up
And cry to the great race that is yet to come.
Long-throated swans upon the waves of time
Sing loudly far beyond the wall of the world
That race may hear our music and awake. 

  - William Butler Yeats

Clockwise from left to right: Lynn Mabry, Dave Revels, Sheila E., Ryan Edwards, Sunny Hitt, Trilok Gurtu, Bill Laswell, Christopher Janney.  The heartbeat machine is between Sunny and Bill.  Photo by Yoko Yamabe

Immediately upon finishing the Exploring the Hidden Music show at the Gramercy Theater Tuesday night, Philipo turned to me and asked, "SO WHAT EXACTLY IS THE HIDDEN MUSIC ?!?!  Philipo, who hasn't emailed me yet with his last name, works as Trilok Gurtu's drum technician and sound engineer.  He had seen a run through of the show in various stages of development 4 times in the last 3 days including tonight's performance.  He asked the question several times and seemed quite serious, even a little distressed to the point where I felt compelled to respond even though I didn't have an adequate answer for him.  I told him to read the last blog, various people had told me it was a good description, but I knew it doesn't really say what the hidden music is.  I also told him that I didn't know, and said there was an English word people use to label the indescribable - "ineffable."  The hidden music seems ineffable, I told him.  Then I mentioned that "ineffable" is also used by people who don't know what they're talking about.  They use it to get by, to give an answer when no easy answer can be given.

So this blog is partly to give Philipo another set of choices to get an answer or direction from.  To eff the ineffable.  I realized what the hidden music meant for me flying 30,000 + feet over Middle America watching a documentary on the artist Ralph Steadman who is most well known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

The hidden music requires tuning in to it.  First you have to know it's there.  The hidden music is demonstrable to serious listeners.  Anyone who has listened extensively to music recordings will likely tell you that some music they heard for the first time did absolutely nothing for them.  It might have sounded like noise or just flat and uninteresting.  Later it can happen that the same recording will be heard and appreciated as a great piece of music.  It's the same exact recording in both instances, but the musicality of it was hidden the first time or first several times until finally heard.  The recording didn't change, but obviously the consciousness of the listener did to reveal the previously hidden music.

The hidden music extends far beyond organized sound structures though music can be the basis to see it in other spectrums such as light and motion as amply demonstrated at the Hidden Music performance by the use of a video synthesizer, a state-of-the art light show, and modern dance.  Music provides the fulcrum for the visuals and dance to take off.

Buddhists call experiencing hidden music satori. John Cage's piece 4'33' reigns as the number one all time hit on the Hidden Music charts.  If you find the music hidden in that it then becomes much easier to experience it everywhere else.  Hidden music might be why our G star planet ended up at the exact sweet spot to support life.  An inch or two different in either direction and it might not have worked as far as human life is concerned.

That kind of critical balance seemed to also be in effect as one explored the hidden music with the Janney/Laswell production.  This exploration began for me the minute I touched down in New York from the taxi ride in to the movie star Rolls limo out, and included all the rehearsals where it naturally and intuitively assembled and took shape,  directed primarily by Janney,  Laswell and Gurtu.

November 23, 2014.

The first rehearsal I attended was at the Alvin Ailey Dance Studio on 55th Street just off of 9th Ave.  The building holds a large dance school and repertory company.  It was clean and new with the mood of a comfortable monastery for the art of modern dance.  Our rehearsal studio was 5B, on the fifth floor, a large, empty, rectangular space with two of the walls completely full length windows and a third, length-wise wall, all mirrors.  The view out the windows showed the city of New York pulsing below, people and cars ever moving through the arteries of the street.  The room had five white circular pillars on the walls running the length, 3 on the window side, 2 on the mirror side.  In front of the two pillars nearest the door, Trilok Gurtu and Bill Laswell set up their respective stations.  D.J. Logic set up his turntables and mixer on a table behind them visually forming a triad.  Flanked on either side of Bill and Trilok was keyboard player Ed Grenga on Bill's side with reed player Peter Apfelbaum by Trilok.  Janney set up his heartbeat machine a little forward from Peter.  It seemed obvious right away, just by how they looked physically in the room, that Bill and Trilok would form the musical pillars of the show.

The idea is for continuous music, Janney told them at one point.  Transitions were worked out so that each piece flowed into the next for a continuous bed of sound.

Sunny Hitt arrived; strong, ethereal, butterfly presence, and began warming up at the quiet end of the space.  Later, Janney attached the medical contact mics and velcroed a small wireless transmitter pack to her back.  The mic signal is received by a medical monitor which has an audio out that feeds a custom designed step-down transformer and eq.  From there it goes into a dbx noise gate which feeds a Crown amp and two banks of what looked like 6 or 8" speakers.  We only had two mics feeding a 4 channel mixer going into the room PA, so one mic went on the heartbeat while the other picked up Trilok's tablas.  Sunny danced to the sound and rhythm of her heartbeat while Janney worked on the form of the piece with the musicians and singers.  I was in a chair by the heartbeat machine.  This was the one time I really got to see her dance, a highlight for me.  Every other time I would be preoccupied with mixing the sound.  She also had much more space to move around in.  Several times it looked like she fully became the heart, expressing its life through a human body.  That looked like hidden music.

The rehearsal went well and ended exactly on time at 6pm.  Trilok, Janney and Bill were going out to eat and Bill invited me to join them.  The four of us left the building together.  Shortly before this trip I had been turned on to a Hemp Root Salve by Rockhouse Remedies for topical and deep tissue healing that I really liked and made great small gifts.  I had intended to give one to each of these three principles in appreciation for my involvement and now was the perfect opportunity.  Janney would only accept his if I had one for Trilok which, of course, I did.  Trilok said it was just what he needed.  What drummer doesn't get sore muscles?  I waited to give Bill his until after dinner where Yoko joined us as I had one for her too..  I didn't consider until later the possible quantum connectivity and morphic resonance field made by the five of us having the same remedy, a remedy also made with hidden music in its ingredients.

Back in room 1508 at the Four Points Sheraton on West 25th Street I open a window allowing in an ocean of musical street noise to wash through the room filling it with random sound that always seems a musical work in progress searching for harmonic order and structure, fractal fossil compositions emerging for a moment from the soup then merging back in to the hum and roar.  All distinction awash in the sea, a general blended cacophony that harbors no threat, but holds no hope of redemption.  Just a timeless moment suspended in the animation of the  neurons vibrating raw diamond sound in the eternity of the present.  Depth sirens stretch out echoing off the corridors of concrete and steel buildings.  Car engine symphonies ebb and flow, peak and valley, whirling eddies of sound always changing in unpredictable pitch, dynamics and timbre with strange harmonics and dissonant polytonals.  The sound of the Shekinah sighing at night, hidden beauty in her randomity, always an uncertainty.  A gong has struck and reverberated in the chord of New York.  Horns play with various sustain, 1/16th note, 1/8th note, 1/4 note, 1/2 note even a full measure in whatever time signature the astrological night registers in. 

November 24th, 2014

9 am load-in at the Gramercy Theater.  We have a good sound crew to work with, Ryan and Anastasia, FOH and monitors respectively.  I am reunited with Anne Militello, the LD from Tom Wait's Mule Variations tour where I mixed FOH.  The sound system is decent, 6 folded horn enclosures loaded with 18s for the low end.  I had to back them down a bit. The PA is controlled by a Soundcraft vi1 digital mixer, touch screen control.  The digital lighting mixer brought in appears even more elaborate and side by side it looks like the bridge of a Starship.  The stage set-up waits while a massive video screen for Janney's video synthesizer gets installed followed by Anne's lighting towers.  I ducked out for a half hour and walked down to the massive Barnes and Noble in Union Square and picked up Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut.

From the bridge we see Philipo, myself, Lighting Guy whose name I will get, and Anne Militello'  Photo by Yoko Yamabe.

I hadn't read Slaughterhouse 5 since the age of 15 or 16.  E.J. Gold mentioned it recently a couple of times and I only vaguely remembered it.  Its two main themes are: 1. Becoming unstuck in time. 2. Death.  Every paragraph tells a self-contained story and exists as an individual unit, its own abstract prose poem of sorts. The book is all these paragraphs strung together.   Every time he writes something about death it's followed by the phrase, "So it goes."  Every single time.  They get quite frequent as the book progresses.  The other phrase he uses, "And so on," gets less frequent as the book progresses.  They are magick formulae.  "So it goes" relates to the experience consciousness goes through when the body dies.  In the Bardo, the between-lives state, the experience appears one of "here to go."  Consciousness speeds up ... a lot, giving an apparency of extreme motion.

Audio starts setting up around 1:30.  I run a DI (direct injection) box for the Heartbeat machine and Sunny gets set with the mics.  At first it sounds great, but then something causes a voltage spike that blows up the line.  We change the DI and cables and it's steady.  Every once in awhile there's a hint of a crackle, some kind of static interference, but it's very slight and infrequent.  Both Janney and I hear it and deem it acceptable.  The next morning the noise is much worse, loud and constant.  Another cable is changed and it's fixed.  Always resistance when something positive tries to manifest.  There was another phenomena with the Heartbeat machine which is that sometimes it would go from the regular heartbeat pulse to a louder, chaotic low frequency rumble when one of the body mics lost contact.  It would also self-correct out of the rumble and back to the steady pulse.  Trying to broadcast the human heart is a delicate matter on any level.  We had a backup loop in case something went wrong during the show, but didn't have to use it.

We only had time this day to get a line check in, but it gave me a good idea of how the room would sound.  Philipo checked Trilok's drums and James played Bill's bass.  It was a complicated set up, but was coming together.  I felt good about where we were at.  Soundcheck was scheduled to begin at 9:30 tomorrow morning.

No art is possible without a dance with death. 

 - CĂ©line, as quoted in Slaughterhouse Five

November 25th, 2014

Soundcheck begins with Philipo setting Trilok's monitors.  Philipo's assistance proved invaluable for Trilok's idiosyncratic drum kit ( 3 bass drums, two played with sticks, tablas, djembe, water percussion along with the more conventional snare drum, ride cymbal, hi hat and rack tom.)  He also does tabla bols, vocalizations into a wireless mic that imitates tabla rhythms.  Philipo rode shotgun with me at the FOH mix position during the show keeping his eyes glued to Trilok letting me know when he was about to play tablas or the water percussion so I could open those mics.  In all my years of live mixing Philipo is the only one who has ever been able to assist in that way without being a serious annoyance.  I was grateful for his help.

Soundcheck was followed by a run through of the show.  There would be another full dress rehearsal from 3:30 to 5:30 pm. Janney's main audio instruction to me , "Oz, there is loud and there is too loud..."  The dot dot dot was the unspoken "we don't want it too loud."  It was already my intention not to mix it loud like a rock concert, but more as the theater piece it was.  We were both on the same page in that regard. The Gramercy theater is on the small side, holds approximately 500 capacity, but is long and narrow with a high ceiling and tiered seating making it sound cavernous when empty.

Hidden music can also turn up as a friendly guide, an angel to take care of potential difficulties.  They seem to either show up serendipitously or you're on your own.  My difficulty was that I couldn't eat the food catered in.  Libby Mislan, one of Janney's extended family of helpers, saw what was going on and immediately took care of the problem for the duration of the project.  I work best when my biological machine is properly fed, and thanks to Libby I was able to get to the level of functioning called for by the invocation.  Later, she mentioned that her day job was teaching creative writing to teenagers.

Dinner was served after the dress rehearsal in the lounge downstairs which was acting as the production office/backstage area.  I found myself talking with Zoe Rappaport who was working on a project about the heart and art for her MFA degree.  It is partly inspired by her father who died from a heart condition when she was very young.  We exchanged the circumstances behind each of our father's deaths, both from heart disease; definitely not your average preshow backstage banter.  Janney's father had also succumbed to a heart condition.  His death had served as a strong inspiration for the creation of the Heartbeat piece.

After eating I had about 90 minutes so I headed down 23rd Street for the 5 block walk back to the hotel.  The street was buzzing with energy.  This was the evening that the Grand Jury announced their decision not to indite in the Ferguson, Missouri case.  Lots of cops on the street and sidewalks, but things seemed relaxed.  I only saw one protester with a Stop Police Brutality sign on her way somewhere.  Later I heard on the news that the New York protests began a little east of the theater on 23rd Street and proceeded to block traffic on the FDR.  At the hotel I had just enough time to get myself ready.

The event began outside the theater with a small version of Christopher Janney's Sonic Forest set up in front of the doors. These are a series of eight foot aluminum columns outfitted with speakers and lights triggered by sensors.  A precursor of sound  and vision environments yet to come.  I could easily imagine a sign over the door reading:


An ambient drone programmed in quad called Cybermonks greeted the audience filing in to the theater.  Cyber derives from an ancient Greek word meaning "self-directed."  White noise transient swooshing sounds panned across the speakers suggesting movement into a space and environment far outside the ordinary.  To dance with death is to die to the ordinary self with its egoistic worries and concerns.  The drone subtly and gently guided the passengers (ie the audience) into a new space.  It evoked a safe and upbeat feeling of exploration, a solid, foundational diving board to launch into the Unknown. 

The drone segued seamlessly into the first piece called Enter the Now.  The horns and Trilok picked up the ambient thread and moved it forward.  Bill began playing subtle lead phrases setting an invocational direction and was soon joined by DJ Logic with soft delayed scratch textures on the turntable.  It built from there.  Everything was musically incredible, everyone locking into the collective groove seamlessly and as if they always played together.  Apfelbaum and Bernstein, horn players I've had the pleasure to mix several times, sounded the best I've ever heard them especially after the ambient section; open and more  experimentally taking chances.  Throughout the concert Bill played at a level I've never heard before, best ever, for me.  Truly amazing ...there is a multi-track recording by Mark Wong, you will have to hear it to believe it.  And, of course, Trilok carried and rhythmically drove the whole thing with absolute finesse and world music taste.  Logic fit in like silk; like an extra-dimensional space visitor bringing new information and sonic corridors.  Without stopping they transitioned to the 2nd piece, Violin Violence that featured a Miles-like head theme played by the horns and joined by keyboardist Ed Grenga.  Sheila E. also joined at this point slowly sliding into Trilok's beat.  Sheila definitely carries her own weight in rhythmic gravitas in a completely different way, but very complementary to Gurtu's style.  Absolutely a highlight seeing them both up there on risers being the rhythmic rudders of the ship, playing with time in a variety of subtle ways.  Even more so when they soloed to start up the post-Hearbeat encore.  Truly a highlight of anyone's musical experience.  At one point she was on the kit, a little later he was playing one of her congas.  I don't think you ever see musicians connect that fast that often.  I believe they met for the first time that day or the day before and now they were creating a new definition of a drum solo.  You have never heard anything like it.  This production brought out the best in everyone... beyond limits.

Violin Violence also dramatically upped the visual aspect of the show when Christopher Janney started playing his video synthesizer projecting images onto a huge hi-tech light wall that served as the stage's backdrop.  I used to watch a TV show growing up called Time Tunnel in which the main characters would jump into this tunnel of swirling light and end up at a different point in time.  Janney's video synthesis screen had a similar effect when I looked at it.  Rapidly changing, mutating, images geometrical, abstract and representational creating a sense of motion and tunneling into different dimensions.  Always in flux, a visual stream of consciousness riffing off the music.  I could only watch 20% of the time, if that, having a show to mix and all, but I did notice one moment of incredible synchronicity between the video and music when the band as whole made a dramatic change into a slower tempo at the same moment that  a dramatic environmental image, the collapsing of a mountain and forest into the water is what I remember, lit the video screen.  I also remember a whole series of images of eyes of all kinds morphing and fluxing in and out of perceptible existence.  Janney achieved the same goal with the video art that Alejandro Jodorowsky had set for Dune, to create the psychedelic experience without having to take the drug. 

Heartbeat started with the audio dropping to the sound of Sunny Hitt's amplified heart thumping through the hall.  She was all in red, projecting form, posture and motion well, a somatic language which told a story of the heart.  Sunny is a good storyteller.  Janney read an anatomical description of the heart that had an eerie resonance set against the sound of the pumping heart. Bill began with high harmonic noises that you'd never expect from a bass while Trilok played ambiently through the water percussion mics.  The second movement of Heartbeat featured a collage of vocalizing and counting starting with a whisper and gradually crescendoing.  The vocals were led by Dave Revels and Lynn Mabry, he sang with the Persuasions, she sang with Sly Stone, two of the finest singers I've ever worked with and sounding as sweet as ever tonight.  Sheila E. joined them on vocals and the three part harmonies they gave had a surrealistically perfect Motown sound.  I had never heard it live that good before.  Janney and Ryan Edwards also were singing and counting, nicely fleshing out the vocal ensemble.

Heartbeat made the implicit explicit.  Normally you don't hear and aren't aware of the sound the heart makes pumping life sustaining blood and oxygen to the brain and nervous system.  Even less do we consider the musicality of that sound.  The hidden music of the heart always playing in our body.

As above, so below,  a primary axiom of magic attributed to the quasi-mythical Egyptian teacher Hermes Trismegistus means that you can make a model of something in the microcosm that has sympathetic resonance with the macrocosm.  In the microcosm of the Gramercy Theater, Sunny Hitt's heartbeat pumped life into the music of that chamber, it was the driving force.  By the principle of As below, so above the same would have occurred in the macrocosm.  The planet survived another night without going up in flames.  Despite high emotions, all the protests of the Ferguson verdict throughout the country stayed peaceful. 

Heartbeat concluded the first part of the show.  Everyone stepped out and took a bow.  The audience gave them a standing ovation.  Emotions ran high here too, but of a far different, transcendental nature.  Next up was DJ Adam Gibbons and his world music dance beats.  People began dancing.  The lighting crew had a blast letting loose with their rig following the DJs beat.

The end finale stayed at the plateau reached by Heartbeat and went up from there.  I already mentioned the percussion solo that reintroduced the live musicians.  That was followed by Bill soloing on his fretless bass while Janney projected a kaleidoscope of Laswell images as if to portray the multidimensional aspects of Being.  Everyone else joined in, horns, singers, keys, Logic, Ryan Edwards now on djembe, everyone listening to each other, sounding cohesive and exuberant with life.  They found the hidden music.