Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The West Coast Bill Laswell Residency


Ontological Sound System

Chairman: Item six on the agenda, the Meaning of Life.  Now Harry, you’ve had some thoughts on this.

Harry: That’s right, yeah. I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One, people are not wearing enough hats. Two, matter is energy. In the Universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person’s soul. However, this soul does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation." However, this is rarely achieved owing to man’s unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.


Max: What was that about hats again?" - Monty Python

Which brings us to music, in particular the extraordinarily powerful, multifaceted, musical event of Bill Laswell's five day Residency at The Chapel in San Francisco's Mission district.  I am just beginning to process it and likely will be doing so for a very long time.  Paradoxically, I feel both extremely worn out from 5 long days of work ... and incredibly amped ... electrically charged from the various new neural tracks, pathways, connections and voyages into different spaces and realities engendered by different configurations of musical assemblages and intensities in a very condensed period of time.  In other words, I'm totally messed up ... in a good way.  The routine has been shattered, the persona destroyed,  solve in motion without coagula just yet, still coming down; between lives, in the bardo once again.  The body is tired, the spirit unleashed to voyage both above and below the horizontal plane of everyday consensual reality. The only solution is to take a cue from Burroughs and write my way out of it.

I don't know that I've ever experienced music this intensely in such a compact period of time.  Six different bands in five nights which, of course, resonates with the Golden Dawn formula of transformation 5 = 6, the pentagram of the balanced 4 elements and spirit of a human becoming the godhead symbolized by the hexagram; the microcosm of the individual uniting with the macrocosm of Universe(s).  The resonance of five nights presenting six bands was not only numerical, it became experiential.  Six different universes of sound in a diurnal consecutive series.  It blew my mind.

Day 1: Divination - Laraaji, Bill Laswell, Hamid Drake

Day 2: Bass Invaders - Jah Wobble, Bill Laswell, Josh Werner, Peter Apfelbaum, 
                                     Hamid Drake, Dorian Cheah, with special guest Ravid Kahalani

Day 3: Sypher - Dave Lombardo, Bill Laswell, Dorian Cheah with special guest Mike Patton.

            Massacre - Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, Charles Hayward

Day 4: Third Rail - James "Blood" Ulmer, Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey, Bill Laswell

Day 5: Method of Defiance - Doctor Israel, Bill Laswell, Guy Licata, Graham Haynes, Peter Apfelbaum, Josh Werner with special guest Devin Prasad

 * * * * * * 
Ontology = the Science of Being; Manifestation = to bring into Existence

We have here a manifestation of a system of sound that creates being by transmitting being, a being forever becoming something new and different.  The system, in this case, encompasses the musicians, their instruments and all the methods of amplification and electronic processing modifying their sound to bring the music (being) into existence.  This music alchemically affects and reacts with everyone in the space - musicians, audience, staff, and technicians.  It may affect others around the world on subtle levels.

Alchemy = a material process for catalyzing and activating ontological manifestation.  It works at different rates of speed and varying intensities over long periods of time.  This process functions on the food we eat, what we do with it, and intention; food on many levels - music = food for the soul, not be confused with soul food which also has been known to fuel some mighty fine music.

The sequence matters.  Day 1: Divination invokes the univocity of being - the advised way to begin any magick ritual after banishing.  Divination featured Laraaji on the electric zither, a variety of processing pedals, vocals and laughter.  The ethereal sounds of the amped, cascading strings and their phased and fissioning harmonics invoked Kether and the Supernal Triad in a big "Atoh" - "Unto Thee." (referring to the initial gesture in the Golden Dawn's Qabalistic Cross which prefaces and closes the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram).

Very dynamic musical voyaging with this group, a nonlinear improvised flow traversing through different galaxies and dimensions traveling on the wings of univocal being.  Bill and Hamid created a solid but extremely fluid foundation for the zither to zith in; Rhythmic, melodic and harmonic beauty and surprise navigating and guiding the ship whither it may go.

Thou who art I beyond all I am
Who hath no nature and no name
Who art when all but Thou are gone
Thou center and secret of the Sun
Thou hidden spring of all things known, and unknown
Thou aloof, alone
Thou the true fire within the reed
Brooding and breeding, source and seed
Of life, love, liberty, and light
Thou beyond speech and beyond sight..

                                                   -The Ship, Aleister Crowley

That was Divination

At the end of the night as I was closing up shop, the owner of The Chapel, Jack, enthusiastically expressed his appreciation of the music describing it on the order of a religious experience.  In the Fourth Way we call this striking a strong "doh." Divination seemed like a cosmic singing bowl was struck that vibrated as an undercurrent all week.  A very good beginning.

* * * * * *
Every drummer this week played absolutely amazing; rhythmic sounds guiding flows of time beyond description.  The beat ruled. Laying a solid foundation (Yesod) that felt like it reached down to the center of the Earth while supporting melodic ideas and excursions to take flight into different worlds and and alternate environments of sound.  Every drummer played a uniquely different style.  Every one world class playing to their peak, no doubt partially due to the compression, intensity, and environment of the Residency.  

The Chapel is the perfect room to see, hear and grok world-class drummers.  Intimate enough to hear every subtlety, big enough -with decent acoustics when it's filled and a strong sound system, to somatically touch the power and punch, to feel the sound.

Hamid Drake went completely beyond anything I had heard him do before.  He has an amazing fluidity, very dynamic while keeping the groove solid, funky and moving ...  and ... painting atmospheric textures along the way; I don't know, maybe he grows extra limbs like a Hindu deity, that's what it sounds like sometimes; very strong melodic sense too.

Bill Laswell is someone who compels, silently, just by his presence, musicians playing with him to perform their best, to be at the top of their game and go further. Here to go. Expanding beyond seems the code of real musicians. I suspect that partially explains how it went for Hamid. That, and the powerful trio synergy with Laaraji and Laswell; the eye in the triangle.

* * * * * *

This Residency gives a tip of the iceberg glimpse into the informal musical community and network of musicians Laswell has worked with over the years.  The purpose of this shapeshifting group seems always invocational and exploratory, innovative and dangerous, thus suggesting a completely singular, non-hierarchical mystery school similar in intention, different in approach, to the schools set up by Gurdjieff and Crowley.

Ontological Sound System works as one description for what Crowley and Gurdjieff were up to, particularly the latter who formulated a law of ontological creation cycles, the Law of Octaves, based on the diatonic scale in music.  The schools manifested by Gurdjieff and Crowley introduced and used alchemical principles and techniques for an ontological production of some kind.  Gurdjieff called it "Real I,"  Crowley's school signifies it as "True Will."

There was a question the other day as to whether avid Crowley collector Jimmy Page actually knew anything about magick, ontologically or otherwise.  I don't know the answer to that question but suspect he experimented.  My point is that something of Crowley rubbed off on Page through all his contact with the artifacts and the work he did to promote AC's books through owning an occult bookstore ( The Equinox) and publishing one of Mather's translations that Crowley wrote an Introduction for. Whether aware of it or not, Page made a connection with the 93 current and transmits it in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Theurgic magick requires a high level of energy and that energy or prana can get extracted and used by listening to Zeppelin, particularly to Page's guitar playing on the live albums.  Whether musically "correct" or not, it transmits an energy, prana, or baraka.  

I don't know how or why, but it seems obvious to me looking at it from the inside that Bill Laswell has a strong resonance and connection with the 93 Current and it gets reflected and transmitted in the music he constructs.  Encountering and confronting this music means confronting and encountering a school.  Caveat emptor, this comes more as a warning than a suggestion.  Intense exposure to the Ontological Sound System can provoke the temporary destruction of personal identity, then, like Humpty Dumpty, you  learn how to put yourself back together again only different.
* * * * * *  
Day 2 Bass Invaders meant a reconnection and reconstitution of the  musical assemblage with the iconic Jah Wobble.  The name of this group an homage to his band, Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart.  Wobble is one of the most influential dub bass players to shake this Earth, known for his sound (his own O.S.S.) starting with the unprecedented massive low end on the first Public Image Limited (PIL) recordings.  Bill Laswell, picked up on this and went on to innovate and changed the dub remix world introducing various outside elements and aesthetics including jazz, ambient and international sounds, sensibilities and textures, avant garde experimentation and chance operations among a host of other musical elements and processes.  The influence Laswell brought to the dub genre was heard by Wobble and fed into his compositions with Invaders of the Heart.  An artistic feedback loop circulates between these two pillars of the bass guitar.  

In fact, having Laswell and Wobble on stage in the same band reminds me of the twin pillars, Jachin and Boaz that marked the entrance to King Solomon's Temple in ancient Jerusalem.  These also symbolize the right and left hand pillars of The Tree of Life, the pillars of Severity and Mercy.  Jachin translates as, he will establish, while Boaz means strength within.

The two pillars were joined in their bass invasion by Josh Werner also fluent in low end dubbese.  All 3 bassists didn't rock the subsonic range at the same time the entire set.  Like Divination, Bass Invaders played fluidly and dynamically always listening to each other and responding.  Josh jumped in on the dub lines when space opened to do so, otherwise he played short melodic phrases or short chordal pads on an old school synthesizer.  Occasionally, Wobble put down his bass and rocked a cowbell in steady time giving Hamid Drake even more leeway to throw in rhythmic pirouettes and somersaults while locking down the groove; simultaneously anchoring and steering the musical voyage.

The three bassists reminded me of an all-time favorite album, Middle Passage, credited to Ginger Baker, produced by Bill Laswell.  That album also features Wobble and Laswell holding down the low end while a third bassist, Jonas Helborg sometimes plays higher register melodic parts.  It remains one of the best sounding albums I have ever heard and is a primary reference I use when listening to new sound systems, both live P. A.s and studio reference monitors.

On my way to to the FOH mixing post I noticed a book on a patron's table, "Memoirs of a Geezer, The Autobiography of Jah Wobble."  He told me he got it at the merch table out front so I picked up a copy and later discovered from it that Middle Passage was the first time Wobble met and worked with Bill.

Wobble has been a musical hero of mine since my friend Hutch - later to become the soundman for D.O.A. (legendary Vancouver punk band) - played the first PIL album for me in 1980 pointing out the  massive bass response which sounded like nothing we'd ever heard before.  Hutch also told me the story of how they got that sound, quite possibly the studio equivalent of an urban legend.  The story went that Wobble cranked up the bass cabinet and pointed it at a stone wall in a small room.  It does sound like that could be true.

Later, in my theurgic researches and experiments I came to really appreciate the name Jah Wobble because Jah really does appear to wobble in the Rastafarian sense of Jah.  Naturally, I asked him to sign the book and he did.  I haven't had the chance to fully read it yet, but the parts I've sampled are an excellent read - a behind the scenes look at working musicians along with a healthy dose of humour.  I highly recommend it.  You might be able to find it here.

Multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum contributed exploratory melodic and chordal segments and ideas in a higher harmonic register with Rhodes piano, Korg synthesizer, tenor sax, flute and melodica.  Special guest, Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues added to the line-up that day, brought a Middle Eastern flavor to the proceedings with mostly tonal, sometimes lyrical improvised singing that seemed cathartic at times as if working through and working out a deep reservoir of pain; a personal pain or the pain of the world situation as it impacts him or a combination of both.  Kahalani, raised in Israel by a Yemenite family who emigrated from Yemen can not return to the country of his ancestors without fear of persecution and nearly certain death.  Ravid joined the bass part of the invasion during the last song of the first set by plugging in and playing his gimbri, a Morrocan bass lute.

Electric violinist Dorian Cheah added his expertise in the second set providing an edgier voice in the upper register, the harmonic distortion from his pedals suggesting the timbre of an electric guitar but with the bowed attack of a violin.  His sound added another element of danger, contrasting as it did with the more sonorous tones of the horns and keyboards.

Bass Invaders in the Green Room.  From left to right, Ravid Kahalani, Hamid Drake, 
Jah Wobble, Josh Werner, Bill Laswell, Dorian Cheah, Peter Apfelbaum.
Photo courtesy of Josh Werner

Day 3 Sypher  Dave Lombardo continued the sequence of mind-blowing drummers.  He's mostly known for his innovations in heavy metal drumming with Slayer, yet his solid and powerful style sounded much freer and less repetitive than that.  More like jazz, though the boundaries between these genre seem fuzzy and indeterminate, a feeble attempt to communicate something that is best experienced.  Lombardo is known for his fast double bass drum style.  During sound check I put a noise gate on the bass drum to reduce some of the low end ringing that happened when the room was empty.  He heard that immediately and asked that it get removed saying that playing with a gate on the kick drum was like trying to run in the sand.  Later he mentioned that he had enjoyed the dub delays I occasionally put on the drums.  

The power of the drums was met and matched by the power of the bass guitar.  Bill played with a heavier sound than either of the previous nights utilizing an array of pedals and effects to create a war machine on the bass.  Dorian Cheah responded with an even more electric guitar-like agenda than the night before.  At times it sounded indistinguishable from a Stratocaster going through a Marshall stack and when he ran his violin through a wah wah pedal I could imagine the ghost of Hendrix smiling with approval.  

There was also a war going on with the volume police that culminated in this set.  It didn't come from the staff of the Chapel, who seemed very supportive of the music's aesthetics, but rather from one intolerant neighbor who lived on the other side of one of the venue's walls.  I had been warned about him after the first night, but thought I was off the hook when Bass Invaders went complaint free.  It seemed that if they didn't shake his cage, then nothing would.  Turns out he had gone out that night.

Sypher welcomed special guest Mike Patton to vocalize in the ending sequence.  I worked with Patton at least 20 years ago when he sat in with Painkiller at Slim's in San Francisco and again in Paris.  I expected it to be non-stop screaming like I remembered it before: a vocal chord war machine trying to burst the containing seams of the skin to let the vital essence out to bleed all over; an intensity hard to reach any other way.  Patton and Painkiller's Mick Harris patented the style and were quite the sub rosa alliance when they joined forces.  Patton has refined his style over the years.  This time around his vocalizings seemed to communicate in a sort of nonhuman, advanced language.  Some of it recalled the alien language of Leeloo in the film The Fifth Element. However the roots were still there - Sypher ended on a Painkiller-like blast with a full on vocal and musical catharsis.

The name Sypher appears a variation on cipher with a qabalistically significant change in spelling.  The definition of cipher: "1. a zero, the figure 0. 2. a secret or disguised way of writing; a code. "  This code often involves numbers.  We use it in the context of tracking the magick - attempting to see traces of what goes on in worlds more subtler than the consensual one.  

Qabalistically, Syp = 150,
                        her  = 210
                        150 + 210 = 360

If you study the gematria of 150 and 151 in Crowley's dictionary, 777 and you have an idea of the work implied by 210 (Robert Anton Wilson gives it away in one of the Historical Illuminatus novels) you may get some notion of an ontological system.

360 = the number of degrees in a circle.  While the bands played throughout this Residency a circular symbol created for this event was projected centrally onto the middle beam of wood above the stage.

As you can see, rays fan out in many degrees from a central location.  Compare that to the information contained in 150, 151 and 210 and learn more about this ontological sound system.

Massacre - Ever since I've known Bill, he has been in what I consider the preeminent band in free jazz circles; always playing with other master musicians.  I was lucky enough to catch a set of Last Exit at the Knitting Factory before they diverged and was fortunate to work with Sonny Sharrock, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Peter Brotzmann on other projects.  

These days it's Massacre.  Tonight's set showed proof of concept, twisting and stretching the boundaries again.  Every guitar player in the world should listen to this evening's performance in my opinion.  The possibilities of this instrument with pedals and technique sound limitless here.   I find it difficult to describe.  I put on the recording to help inspire words and just listen to it in sheer amazement.  All I can think to say is: a sonic manifestation of the activity implied in the above symbol.  Some of it reminded me of the psychedelic explorations of early Pink Floyd, or if it had evolved.  Set the Controls for the Center of the Sun. 

After the volume restrictions placed on the sound in the last set, Massacre's level started off on the conservative side.  Within minutes, Jack, the owner, insisted that it get turned up.  So I completely ignored what I'd been told in the last set and mixed it as loud as I wanted. No complaints. Plenty of kudos. This music has a Will to be heard on it's own terms.

* * * * * * 

The Laswell Residency was like a magnet drawing the hardcore cognoscenti from lands near and far. A taper came down from Oregon taking time off work to attend and record the first three shows.  My friend Dosh and his friend came up from Arizona to attend all six shows.  I saw so many old musical acquaintances that I hadn't seen for years I thought I may have died resulting in the bardo of my musical history flashing before my eyes.  But I also forged new musical colleagues: Josh Werner, Dorian Cheah and Dave Lombardo among them.  I was thrilled to meet and hang out a little with the great music writer Anil Prasad whom I knew from his compelling advocacy for artists on Facebook.  He gave me a copy of his book Innerviews: Music Without Borders subtitled Extraordinary Conversations with Extraordinary Musicians.  Some of the chapter titles jumped out upon a first glance.  Bjork: Channeling thunderstorms, Bill Laswell: Endless infinity, John McLaughlin & Zakir Hussein: Remembering shakti, David Torn: Mercurial mastery, McCoy Tyner: Communicating sensitivity.  I have only had the chance to peruse this book in random fragments so far, but everything I have read confirms my opinion that Prasad is one of the best communicators (and thus facilitators) of music out there.  I highly recommend checking it out.

* * * * * *
Day 4: Third Rail James "Blood" Ulmer walked out on stage causing a warm pulsing wave of emotion to quite palpably ripple through the crowd as if seeing a blood relative return home after many years.  I don't know when he last played in San Francisco, it felt like the crowd had missed him and were delighted to have him back, a very warm welcome.  I had missed him a lot too, and Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey and everyone else from the original Third Rail who couldn't make it today, Amina Myers and Bernie Worrell.  

The adjective "legend" sometimes gets overused to describe great musicians, this time it's legit. Blood is a living legend of a unique side of the blues.  Everyone there knew it, either by previous reputation, or if not then they saw it this night as manifested by his presence and the command of his instruments - voice and guitar.  Blood was the bandleader tonight.  They had worked on several of Ulmer's songs at soundcheck, but this attempt at a formal structure got largely abandoned in actual performance for a more freewheeling and spontaneous offering in the same spirit of devil-may-care improvising  all the other groups in the Residency subscribed too.  

Esoterically: Blood, Bigfoot and Bill, what more needs to be said?  You just need to know that foot refers to Malkuth, the material world, the physical space/time continuum, and that Bill adds to 72 which means "a breakthrough."  The third rail is the rail that provides the electricity to the subway train.

Day 5: Method of Defiance

"Difference must be shown differing.  We know that modern art tends to realize these conditions: in this sense it becomes a veritable theater of metamorphoses and permutations.  A theater where nothing is fixed, a labyrinth without a thread (Ariadne has hung herself).  The work of art leaves the domain of representation in order to become 'experience', transcendental empiricism, or science of the sensible."  ...

This empiricism teaches us a strange 'reason,' that of the multiple, chaos and difference (nomadic distributions, crowned anarchies)."

 - Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 56 & 57

All music ultimately goes beyond representation when it works.  Most of it can still get represented by agreed upon terms and classifications after the fact, we can usually find a comparison with something in the past to give the music a familiar reference point.

Method of Defiance defies description.  That is part of its defiance, it leaves the domain of representation to ... see the quote above.

Method of Defiance  - a sonic collage, a pastiche of cut-ups, a bricolage, a schizoanalysis music investigation into a new being of music. an ontological sound system.

Put all these elements into the nuclear reactor of a small performance space: live drums, drum loops, dubbed drums, modulated turntable scratching dubbed and delayed, low end for days and galaxies of bass morphologies with pedals and effects, samples, electronic trumpet landscapes, obscure and arcane chords and intervals on keyboards and horns, trumpet and sax, occasional rippling of flute across the wake, a M.C. and rapper, Doctor Israel (is real) as tour director and guide for the voyage.  You'll get transcendental empiricism balanced against insanity and chaos.  This music touches the Other, that which exists completely outside of anything known.  It touches the Other and brings some of it back into the performance space translating it into a somatic and tactile awareness through the low frequencies of the beat and groove.

Into this cauldron of sound and mixture of chaos, 11 year old Devin Prasad was initiated into the Residency, into the O.S.S., as a special guest sitting in on guitar.  He played an excellent supporting role, and like all on stage, was keenly listening to everyone else and reacting in kind.  The only way this hybrid music monstrosity works is if everyone pays attention and listens to everyone else.  The stage becomes a nuclear reactor constructing  a new architecture of sound.  James Dellatacoma briefly tutored Devin on the range of styles he might hear and tips on how to respond with the guitar.

Method of Defiance.  Left to right: D.J. Logic, Josh Werner, Doctor Israel, Devin Prasad, 
Guy Licata, Graham Haynes, Bill Laswell, Peter Apfelbaum
Photo by Anil Prasad

* * * * * * 

Knowing this would be a major event in my music career I endeavored to track the magick as best I could.  By that I mean, to attempt to view what was going on in dimensions and worlds to subtle to impinge our normal senses.  Tracking the magick seems a type of transcendental empiricism.

The night before the Residency Bill, James and I arrived at the Phoenix Hotel within 5 minutes of each other.  They flew in from New York.   I drove from Grass Valley, left later than planned and got delayed on the Emperor Norton (Bay) Bridge for an hour.  We unintentionally arrived at nearly the same time.  The Phoenix is where everyone stayed.  It’s a funky and clean hotel in the Tenderloin district, also an institution of sorts.  It is thee rock-n-roll hotel in San Francisco, the place where many touring bands stay when in town.

A weird thing occurred Thursday night after Third Rail.  Before the show, I turned off the wi fi in my laptop to maximize its cpu for recording.  That night before falling asleep at the Phoenix, my girlfriend Paula and I watched the first episode of Russian Doll on Netflix using the same laptop. In the morning, I went to check my email and discovered no connection because the wi fi was off. I hadn’t turned it back on since the show. Somehow we watched Netflix without any known internet connection. Maybe the wi fi turned itself on for the show then back off the next morning? I’d find that equally strange. The weirdness factor increases because it was that show.

 Signs are the true elements of theater.  They testify to the spiritual and natural powers which act beneath the words, gestures, characters, and objects represented. -  Deleuze, D & R p.23

The day after the Residency concluded I drove Paula to a dealership in Roseville where she bought a car that she named Silver Phoenix.  Following that, she had to pick up a few household items so we motored in tandem to a nearby Dollar store.  The dude checking us out had PHOENIX written in all caps on his name tag.  I asked if it was his real name and he said it was, but had never been to Arizona.  I told him about the Phoenix rock-n-roll hotel in San Francisco.

Taken as an entire series, music expressing this power, emotion and intensity in a live setting is extremely rare.  A lot of popular contemporary music seems solely for the purpose of entertainment or to cover the noise.  Music with the artistic commitment to experiment with the creation of being as occurred in the unfolding of the Laswell Residency only comes along once in awhile and never the same way twice.  It would be amazing if this sound system were to repeat though you can be guaranteed that when it does, it will be different.