Thursday, August 30, 2018

Method of Defiance with Laurie Anderson

 In the deep subcellar of the human heart the dolorous twang of the iron harp rings out.

Build your cities proud and high. Lay your sewers. Span your rivers. Work feverishly. Sleep dreamlessly. Sing madly like the bulbul. Underneath, below the deepest foundations, there lives another race of men. They are dark, somber, passionate. They muscle into the bowels of the earth. They wait with a patience which is terrifying. They are the scavengers, the devourers, the avengers. They emerge when everything topples into dust.

- Henry Miller

The program liner notes for the  Al'arme Festival Vol. VI titled this event : LAURIE ANDERSON & BILL LASWELL'S METHOD OF DEFIANCE: COLLISION & SHORT CIRCUITS.  This event landed on the first of August at the Radial System V in Berlin.

The method of this defiance consists of Guy Licata on drums, Doctor Israel on beats, dub effects, M.C. and vocals, D.J. Logic on turntables, loops and samples, Graham Haynes on coronet and efx, Bill Laswell on bass guitar and efx, and Laurie Anderson on electric violin, synth efx, and vocals; tech support and organization provided by James Dellatacoma, Yoko Yamabe and myself.

Bill and Laurie go back a long way.  He produced some tracks for her Mr. Heartbreak album in 1984 featuring William S. Burroughs.  It was Anderson that initially introduced Laswell to Burroughs.  Five years later Laswell would create the soundscape for one of Burroughs' most significant spoken word recordings, Seven Souls.  Burroughs read text Laswell had selected from his recent book The Western Lands, his uniquely vibrant  and colorful rendering of The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  Seven Souls is an extremely evocative guided trip through the bardo, the land of the dead.  It rates as a classic in the field of after-life technology.

Laurie Anderson has been on my radar a long time as well, listening to her albums since the mid 80's, seeing her exhibits at MOMA in New York and catching a performance at the Beacon Theater. I was fortunate to assist on one session for her Strange Angels album in the late '80s.  Strange Angels is a great title, there are other things called that, but the one that interests me the most and somehow seems obliquely connected to this concert is Strange Angel in the singular, the biography of Jack Parsons.  Parsons was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Labratory.  He discovered the formula for the first effective liquid jet and rocket fuel which made jet planes possible.  He was also a major Science Fiction fan as well as a devout and very enthusiastic student of Aleister Crowley.  Crowley's magick, of course, has a firm foundation in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  Hopefully Parsons was able to quickly up his after-life technology points because he tragically died at age 37 when he accidentally blew himself up.

The opening artist for Method of Defiance was a Norwegian avant garde angel, Maja S.K. Ratkje who created a very powerful and densely layered sonic environment with only her voice and electronics.  It definitely created a whole other world that, for me, recalled a quote from Dante's Inferno I had recently seen in Crowley's Konx Om Pax.  It occurs in the 6th Canto when Virgil and Dante enter the 3rd Circle of Hell:
“ ____________Look to your science
Where it is written: the more a thing is perfect
The more it feels of pleasure and of pain."

I enjoyed what I heard very much.

The Method of Defiance set was framed by two stories Anderson told, the first as an introduction and the second near the end.  Her first story incorporated one of the most ingenious uses of crowd participation I've ever witnessed.  In the event that she does it again, I won't write a spoiler and say exactly what it was, only that it effectively evoked the feeling of frustration nearly anyone of sane mind experiences when tuning into the Trump political reality TV show.  It created a powerful cathartic sensation that segued into an equally powerful music blast from the M.O.D. emergency broadcast system here at the Al'arme Festival.  Anderson's second story was about the stars.  From Trumpian angst to the stars suggests to me that the music, while it went in many directions from ambient soundscaping and melodic delicacy to furious drum & bass, hip hop beats and turntable scratching with rap dissent and poetics, overall it became a transformative voyage through a figurative and temporary death of ordinary identity. A realm of the dead, a realm which is another kind of very affective life.  This is the realm where real change can occur.

There were two sets to different audiences and they were unlike any other Method of Defiance or Material concert that I've mixed.  Laurie Anderson brought a unique sensibility that blended seamlessly with the drum & bass, dub & ambience, revolution rap of M.O.D. and guided it into uncharted territory.  I saw Graham after the second show and he was shaking his head with a big smile saying something like, "... she takes you to places you never expect to go." It was clearly an exceptional new musical adventure for him.  Bill also played differently, mixing in lots of melodic phrases and ambient environments with the heavy dub lines and the intense crescendos.

Laurie Anderson and Guy Licata
This, and the other MOD photo posted here is from Guy's Facebook page.  I don't know who to credit the photos too.

This was a challenging configuration to mix.  There was a lot of sound and it wasn't always easy to distinguish who was playing what.  I was soloing channels and checking them with headphones a little more than usual to determine the source of different sounds in order to know what faders to mix.  Beats could come from either Logic or Dr. Israel and, of course from Guy though it was easy to distinguish the acoustic drums from the sampled drums except in one instance when Guy completely locked in to a beat Logic looped.  In that case it was one powerful blend of sampled and live drums, you couldn't hear any flams at all between the two.  Laurie Anderson sometimes triggered lush and elaborate synthesized landscapes of sound that in itself could feel as big as a symphonic orchestra.  Bill also could create massive worlds and microworlds of sound with his pedals morphing his bass into timbres foreign to any conventional instrumentation.  Maybe mark it down to our location on the former divide between East and West Germany that some of sounds coming out of Bill's bass rig recalled scenes out of Burroughs' Interzone.

Gilt and red plush. Rococo bar backed by pink shell.  The air is cloyed with a sweet evil substance like decayed honey. Men and women in evening dress sip pousse-cafés through alabaster tubes. A Near East Mugwump sits  naked on a bar stool covered in pink silk. He licks warm honey from a crystal goblet with a long black tongue.

This wealth of sound generation could easily have become out of control, turning into a dense mass of sonic assault.  It never did even at its most intense.  You always had a sense of depth and articulation to the mix.  The dynamics were always moving and had a broad range.  The triple forte moments only lasted as long as necessary to get that aesthetic across.  The pianissimo sections became so soft that I had to gain up the mic pres on Laurie's channels to hear the delicate pizzaccato playing as well as the drum overhead mics when Guy lightly tapped ambient accents on the cymbals.  This assemblage of musicians seemed highly attuned to playing as one coherent unit rather than a collection of individual expressions.  That's why it worked so amazingly well.  Everyone listened, acted and reacted to each other, there was always give and take.  Playing a whole concert of improvised music with no pre-planned stucture and with a coherent high sense of aesthetic requires a kind of nonverbal communication that seems like a form of telepathy.  I could feel and was participating in this communication from the mixing desk.

A crucial part of any musical assemblage is the environment it plays in: the concert hall.  This hall is called Radial System V and has an interesting history.  In the 1880s the city planners in Berlin determined that they needed a new sewage system.  They came up with a circular design and built 12 pumphouses that they called Radial Systems.  This was the fifth one - Radial System V.  In 1905 an extension was added to it to handle the rapidly expanding city.  The main structure was destroyed in WWII leaving only the extension. Upon German reunification in 1998, the pumphouse was taken out and extensive remodelling took place.  In 2006 it was repurposed as a cultural exhibition and performance space while retaining its original name, Radial System V.  It's interesting to reflect upon this site's alchemical-like transformation: from pumping out crap and waste to pumping out high aesthetic art, music and culture.

This hall had a unique atmosphere that recalled the mood you get from reading Thomas Pynchon describe the insides of a WW II era missile silo in Gravity's Rainbow. It was very industrial with grey stone walls and red bricks.  Fortunately for the sound, thick black curtains lined the walls giving the perfect absorption/reflection index for the acoustics; just the right amount of liveness and reverb decay to the room.  The drums sounded huge, the room worked to their advantage.  The seating was on carpeted tiered levels, just on the floor, there weren't any chairs.  The tiers made for a very powerful, but tight bass response.  It also made it significantly louder near the front of the stage.  While I saw a tech's smart phone app registering peaks at 103 -104 dB spl back at the board where I was - on the top tier at the back of the house, I was told that it was ;peaking at 110 dB spl near the front.  Later, I was delighted to hear that Doc's partner, Melissa, was supplied with lots of earplugs which she was giving out freely to anyone who requested them. 

This group of musicians had never played together in this particular configuration. There was a rehearsal day at the venue to musically get to know one another and for the assemblage to take shape.  It gave me the chance to have an extended soundcheck and to get to know the acoustics of the space.  The sound of the room becomes a musical instrument.

Remarkable coincidences can be an indicator that one is in or around the bardo. At the airport on the way to Berlin I started reading Sexus, Part 1 of The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy by Henry Miller because of a recommendation by Gilles Deleuze.  Indeed, there are a number of illustrations of Deleuzian notions in this book, it probably helped inspire his philosophy.  The book also has several  bardo tips and sequences -  passages and anecdotes that give the sensation or feeling of being between bodies or provides useful information for that state.  A lot of the writing is very profound and has a feeling akin to Beat literature.  I strongly suspect that Burroughs and Miller read and were influenced by one another.

The first night in Berlin I googled Henry Miller and read his Wikipedia biography.  I was delighted to see that Laurie Anderson had supplied the music for the 1996 documentary Henry Miller Is Not Dead, a brilliant, impressionistic, first-hand account of his life, told from the end of it looking back, along with his philosophies on life and death. This documentary seems very bardoesque with Miller's stream of consciousness unraveling back through the years.  Anderson's music complements it perfectly.

I'm not interested in everyday reality, I want to penetrate that,
but that is a sort of inexpressible thing

Sometimes one thinks about death, about approaching death
One thinks of it as a very, very interesting part of life.
It should not always be shunned, frowned upon and put away,
it should be welcomed, don't you understand ...,
and maybe it has treasures unknown for us.
 - Henry Miller, Henry Miller Is Not Dead

Speaking of Egypt and death, I had heard that one of the best collections of Ancient Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt resided in Berlin. so I woke up early and spent a couple of hours there before soundcheck.  Indeed, the Egyptian exhibit was more extensive than ether the British Museum or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art which also have good collections.  

The priestly practices and culture of Ancient Egypt underpins Golden Dawn magick.  It's also one of the more advanced civilizations concerning the technology of life surviving after death.  This technology gets expressed in a series of ancient manuscripts collectively known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead also known as The Book of Going Forth by Day.  This image of "day" representing a transcendental new life influenced Friedrich Nietzsche to title one of his seminal works, The Dawn of Day while also influencing the title of Pynchon's classic modernist novel, Against the Day.  When similar, but different life after death technologies in Tibetan Buddhism became known to the Western world through the efforts of Walter Evans-Wentz and translated into English, he called it The Tibetan Book of the Dead after the Egyptian.

An occult hypothesis states that ancient priests and wise people were able to record teachings and impressions into artifacts of all kinds including those made of stone.  They did this to pass on their knowledge because they knew that books and written information were subject to attack and destruction.  The torching of the Library of Alexandria by the Roman army in 48 BC shows one well-known example.  

Retrieving information out of reading artifacts is the science of psychometry, a subject covered well in Visions in the Stone by E.J. Gold.  This information, as well as not, can be a mood, an emotion, or a unique sensation of some kind.  It doesn't always appear as intellectual data, though it can, and often does, manifest in that way.  

I have tried, and don't feel particularly adept at conscious psychometry, but I also suspect that you can get influenced and receive things that you don't realize until later.  So I embarked upon my voyage into the Egyptian Museum of Berlin with an open mind and heart, prepared to be as receptive as possible to any signs of reading artifacts or ancient knowledge lurking about in the unearthed carved stones that became their temple walls and statuary.

The highlight of the museum is an excellently preserved bust of Neffertiti, probably a main source for the legend of her incomparable beauty.  I thought this image below might have something to say.  I wonder what kind of music it heard in its day.

Of course, my favorite area of the museum was what they called the Underworld of the Egyptians.  Naturally, it was located in the basement.  The lighting of the funerary exhibits was mostly dark and moody.  They did an excellent job of making you feel you were dead and in the bardo with the architecture which featured multiple small rooms or chambers with arched ceilings.

I also saw some ancient papyrus fragments attributed to Homer, Hesiod and others.  There were  many artifacts uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann, the controversial discoverer of the historical site of the Trojan War.  I felt that all this exposure was excellent preparation for mixing Method of Defiance.  These artifacts defied time and survived.  I felt very alive back out on the daylight streets of Berlin.

I'll leave this report with a quote from Henry Miller that illustrates the value Gilles Deleuze places on nonsense to communicate sense.  We see obvious parallels to music from such groups as Method of Defiance.

The term "nonsense" is one of the most baffling words in our vocabulary.  It has a negative quality only, like death.  Nobody can explain nonsense: it can only be demonstrated.  To add, moreover, that sense and nonsense are interchangeable is only to labor the point.  Nonsense belongs to other worlds, other dimensions and the  gesture with which we put it from us at times, the finality with which we dismiss it, testifies to its disturbing nature.  Whatever we cannot include within our narrow framework of comprehension we reject.  Thus profundity and nonsense may be seen to have certain unsuspecting affinities.

In the realm of music, it seems that boundary between nonsense and sense becomes obscure and more fuzzy with an assemblage like Method of Defiance, all of whom have their feet planted in both worlds - conventional musical structure and free-form sound experimentation.  Nonsense can easily crossover and create a new kind of sense.  To paraphrase Miller: "Nobody can explain this kind of music, it can only be demonstrated."  You could hear it in this concert in the ambient passages of interstellar space excursions when the violin was calling and answering itself, hard panned to make an immense field, against a texture of electrically organic and atmospheric liquid noises and the clear tone of the trumpet harmonically guiding the rudder.  There is a recording of these mind-blowing, progressive modernist concerts and hopefully, at some point, they too will go forth by day.

The AL'ARME! FESTIVAL VOL. 6 held at RADIALSYSTEM V, as the program cover reads, placed a great value on the production of noise, i.e. musical nonsense. "Noise and feedback are the central principles of the AL'ARME! model." (program notes).  It appears obvious to me that whomever wrote of the concept behind the festival and the artists was either into qabalistic wordplay and/or  was visited by inspiration from Coincidence Control.  The first giveaway is their fondness for puns and dialectic opposites.  For instance, they begin the program book with a brief description of the communication model of a political scientist named Harold Dwight Lasswell, partly, it seems,  because it's obviously a play on Bill's name.  In the next paragraph they write: "In short, the Lasswell model is everything that this festival is not."  Their festival has the opposite Laswell, a nonpolitical artist.

One aspect of the festival I regret missing, only because I wasn't aware of it at the time, was a sound installation by Mark Fell called THE TRUTH AT ALL COSTS.  The description of it reads like a qabalistic process:

In this piece 23 speakers are arranged
in the form of a lattice structure, each
of which has a separate sound source.
The sound is made using three different
pattern generating systems that are
connected in various ways so that each
system permutes the behaviors of
the other two.  At this level of the work's
structure, a series of triangular rela-
tionships are defined that progressively
disrupt the musical content of the piece.


  1. Oz! The man behind the curtain of sound.

  2. I am glad you went into the underworld of the Egyptian Museum. Did you know that the head of Nefertiti was found in the ashes of the burnt down studio of the artist who had kept the sculpture for himself instead of delivering it to the queen? Such interesting reading, especially this blog, you tie it all together, the various references spanning art, philosophy, literature, politics, aesthetics and spirituality are very inspiring. You have a very interesting life, for sure.