Tone Glow 028: Catherine Christer Hennix
An interview with Catherine Christer Hennix + album downloads and our writers panel on Siavash Amini's 'A Mimesis Of Nothingness' and Vladislav Delay, Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare's '500-Push-Up'
Catherine Christer Hennix
Catherine Christer Hennix is a Swedish composer, poet, philosopher, and mathematician who currently resides in Turkey. She primarily creates long-form drone music and has collaborated with artists such as Henry Flynt, La Monte Young, and Pandit Pran Nath. She has worked as a professor at both SUNY New Paltz and MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, led the just-intonation ensemble the Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage, and is the author of various papers and books, including last year’s Poësy Matters and Other Matters. Her newest album features a 1974 recording of the Karlheinz Stockhausen piece Unbegrenzt. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Hennix on the phone via WhatsApp on May 31st. The two discussed her music, the numerous artists she’s collaborated with, the drawbacks of music venues, and more.
Photo by Fergus Padel
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, how are you doing? It’s pretty late over there, do you usually stay up this late?
Catherine Christer Hennix: Yeah, from time to time I do. I’ve been watching TV from the United States all evening, so it’s hard to go to bed after seeing so many horrors.
Yeah, there’s a lot happening right now. I was just at a protest yesterday.
What state are you in?
I’m in Illinois, I was at a protest in Chicago.
Oh wow, okay.
I wanted to start off this interview by asking if there was anything you were dying to talk about. Is there something you’ve wanted someone to ask you during an interview?
Well, I’m not prepared to die for it (laughter). There are many such questions but none are coming to mind. Which questions did you have in mind anyway?
I wanted to ask: What’s something in this world that you find profoundly beautiful that keeps you encouraged, that keeps you going?
For me Allah is the most beautiful, and everything else is maybe less beautiful.
What facet about Allah is most alluring to you?
Well, it’s everything! It’s the only thing that truly exists. It has an eternal existence and everything else is perishing, as you may notice if you look on TV.
How long have you believed in Allah?
It’s part of my training as a musician by Pandit Pran Nath. The music is focused on an Indian idea that is expressed as Nada Brahma which means—and this is a not-so-good translation—“sound is God.” If you look in any English dictionary you’ll never find that God means Brahma or Allah or anything like that nor that Brahma or Allah means “God” were you to look in a Sanskrit or Arabic dictionary, so that is a quite misleading translation. It’s the colonial translation, you could say.
So there’s this idea that sound is God and you also said that Allah is the most beautiful—the only thing that isn’t perishing—does this mean you see sound as being something that is eternal?
Yeah, yeah—there’s a cosmic sound that is eternal.
Can you expand on that?
It’s an unbroken sound, it’s like a sound current that is always on—the universe is always on. It doesn’t stop when we go to bed or when we eat or do something else, it’s always something that is ongoing. And it’s the same with hearing; it’s not like our eyes, which you can close. You can never close your hearing—it’s always there. Even when there’s silence, the ear hears the silence, you see. It’s an organ that absorbs what is even invisible, while the eye only absorbs what is visible.
Is this actually an interview? I thought we were just doing a little bit of talking before we do the interview but you’re welcome to make notes if you’d like.
Oh, for my interviews I try to make them as conversational as possible. I like to keep things casual.
Ah. See, the thing is that I just called you up because I’m actually trying to get out of the country. I have to go to Sweden and you have to have special governmental permission to leave because people over 65 like me aren’t allowed to go out. I can not go to the airport! (laughs).
Yeah, it’s really terrible. I’ve been dealing with this the whole last week and this week I have to finalize things, and the week after I’m supposed to leave. I was supposed to leave earlier but they canceled the flight. I have so many stupid things on my mind so I just thought that if I don’t call you now I would forget about the whole thing.
It’s okay, this is good!
Yeah, we can continue anyway.
Yeah, I like this. I love this comparison you’ve made of the visible and invisible, of hearing and seeing. In your own works, do you try to make your music as tactile as possible? We may not be able to see it, but we can feel it, and I feel like a lot of your music deals with that physicality.
Yeah that’s true. People don’t think so much about this but in the genetic code, or in the embryo developing, the ear is part of a tactile system. You can actually hear with your body if you’re deaf because you still have a muted hearing just through your body. When you do sound meditations with sound and it is at a certain volume, your skeleton is also vibrating—there are bone resonances—especially if you sit on the floor. The floor is absorbing the sound as well.
Hearing is an extension of the tactile sense. It’s very, very sensitive. It registers vibrations in the air. In Indian music theory, that is called a broken sound—the struck sound. In other words, this is a sound with a beginning and an end. But the cosmic sound is called unbroken sound, it’s like a sound current, it’s on all the time. If you’re into listening to your own inner sound, you can hear this current. I don’t know if you have had that experience. Most people don’t notice it because it’s quite subtle. Have you heard it?
I don’t think I have, no.
Yeah, it’s a special meditation technique called Nāda yoga where you listen to the inner sound that is produced by your ear. Your ear is both an amplified sender and a receiver so in other words, it receives sounds but also broadcasts them. This broadcasting is your inner sound.
How often do you do this form of meditation?
Well, it’s on all the time so it’s only when I don’t pay attention to it that I don’t practice it. When I’m doing something else—like typing an email—then I don’t necessarily hear it. Of course, if I play at the same time then it is being masked by my own sound, although it is definitely there. But my own sound is very much continuous as well, or I try to make it continuous. I don’t have any harmonic progressions or melodic forms, and there are no transients—I try to avoid transients as much as possible.
You’ve worked and studied with Pandit Pran Nath, and you’ve mentioned him a little bit. What would you say was the biggest thing that you learned from him? What’s the biggest takeaway from your time with him?
That is the teaching of Nada Brahma—it connects you with the whole universe and beyond. In other words, you don’t perform for the audience, you perform for the universe. It’s a form of prayer, actually.
When you do shows, do you feel like you have to fight yourself from having a mindset of performing for an audience, or are you always just ultimately performing for the universe?
I don’t know any other way. I find it very unsatisfactory to have a beginning and an end for a piece, but there are physical limitations on performances, so they do start at some time and end at some other time. That is very frustrating, actually.
Have you been upset by limitations forced upon you for specific performances?
Yeah, these commercial venues are really hopeless of course (laughter). They work against everything I stand for but I do usually—well, I guess always—have a drone that runs 24/7 which immerses the audience and which erases the distinction between a beginning and an end. The basic premise of my music is that I highlight harmonics in that drone because otherwise, they are difficult to distinguish or discern for the untrained ear.
People cannot hear when they come in—first they don’t hear anything, they just hear one tone. And then when they sit down, they realize it’s more than one frequency; the longer you listen, the more you hear inside it. But since they have to get out of the venue at a certain point, they can’t go all the way into it. You can say that the performance is a way of conveying what is inside this sound. I always have it on in the studio where I live—I live with this sound on all the time. I always regret the moment when the audience is ushered out since they have now gotten into the sound and that is the point when the journey actually begins. There needs to be another way like, say, when you go to a museum where you can watch the same painting for eight hours without interruption.
What would be the ideal setting for you for people to hear your works?
Well you need a permanent space that is dedicated to the particular aesthetics of the sound, where sound is always on, and from time to time there is a performance together with that sound.
With an untrained ear, people may hear your work and only hear a single tone when there’s more going on. Do you feel like part of your role as an artist is teaching listeners, is training their ears? I know you were a teacher as well, so I’m wondering if you see a link between these two professions—do you feel a burden to have listeners train their ear to hear these harmonics?
Yeah, but luckily they do that themselves. Like in mathematics, you cannot really teach that; you learn mathematics by doing it. One can give cues and hints and there will be stuff on the blackboard but ultimately it is the student who will discover mathematics. Every student of mathematics has their own idea of mathematics in the end, and it’s the same with music; everyone has their own ideas of it depending how exposed or primed they have been to sound.
Photo by Laura Gianetti
What’s your philosophy with teaching? Do you try to be relatively hands off? What do you see your role being as a teacher, be it for training someone’s ear or in teaching math?
I don’t think that I can teach anything, really. I do my thing and people absorb it or not; it depends on who is there. You cannot force people to understand something they are not ready for. People make themselves ready for experiences in one way or another. You can encourage it by trying to make it attractive, that’s how I feel about it.
What music primed you to get to your understanding of music today? Were there any pieces of work that you feel were very formative to your understanding of sound?
I had a wonderful upbringing in Stockholm. I met all these great jazz musicians—I heard John Coltrane live four times, and that was a very formative experience. There were also other jazz musicians who were very impressive. They were incredible musicians, practically all of them.
Can you tell me what you remember about the Coltrane performances? When did those take place?
I first heard him with Miles [Davis] in 1960 in the spring, and then he came back in the winter or the late autumn with his quintet, with Eric Dolphy—that was thoroughly mind-blowing. He came again with his quartet, but only two more times, unfortunately.
There was a jazz club called the Golden Circle and Cecil Taylor was there, and on his last night, Albert Ayler joined him—that was far out. Bill Evans also played there, which was a real treat. Then you had other cats like Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon, and then Archie Shepp, Don Cherry—the New York Contemporary Five. It was an incredible place to be in Sweden at that time.
Was there any music that was important to you growing up?
Yeah, my mother was a composer but she liked old jazz and it was my brother who bought the modern records and brought them home. I listened to all of them.
How much older was your brother than you?
He was ten years older than me. He was given more money to spend on stuff like that; I was just a little kid at the time.
Do you remember anything your brother brought home that surprised you?
He brought home Miles, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday—he had good, eclectic taste. The list goes on and on.
Do you still listen to a lot of jazz? Do you see a throughline between your interest in jazz and the music you create yourself?
Jazz is actually very spiritual music. While it became very commercial in the ’70s and later, before that it had a much stronger spiritual root. Not just Coltrane but, say, [Charles] Mingus and Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt and many, many others—for them it was this whole way of communicating with something way out there. You do not hear much of that feeling any more.
Is it primarily this spiritual aspect or do you see any sonic similarities?
These musicians were so incredibly advanced that when I listen to these records now, sixty, seventy years later, they just amaze me—they control all the instruments and the way they come up with the ideas as they improvise. It’s pretty miraculous music actually, but it is easy to overlook that aspect. When I was a little kid I didn’t hear any of these things at all, at least explicitly; I just felt it sounded incredible. I didn’t really know what it was except that it was my favorite music.
What are the things you hear in it as an adult that you didn’t as a child?
I didn’t realize the technical accomplishments. I started to play drums when I was six or seven years old, and my hands were too small to play piano—my hands were too small to make an octave until I was like ten. Drums were sort of my first instrument and believe it or not, I basically thought I sounded like Kenny Clarke or whatever; I didn’t realize that I didn’t sound like that at all (laughter).
We learned jazz from listening to records—we didn’t have sheet music. So the first time I heard live jazz from New York in a big concert hall in Stockholm, I thought, “This doesn’t sound like the records at all. This is not so nice.” (laughs). That was my first impression. The live sound and the recorded sound are so completely different, but if you didn’t know that comparison you’d think the live music sounded like the records if you were naive like myself. So that’s why I thought I could play like these people, I guess.
Your mother was a jazz composer, what did your father do?
Oh, he was a doctor.
Was he into music?
It seems like your parents were supportive of you playing music, though.
Yeah, my mother was very supportive. My brother played trumpet and he had a band, actually. I was sitting in, playing drums for his band when I was seven or eight years old. I started off playing brushes on a telephone catalogue and then gradually I got more and more parts of the drums, but I didn’t have a full drum set until I was ten.
Have you played the drums at all recently?
Not really, no. Well, actually, a little bit. I have an old friend here from Sweden, Okay Temiz, he lived in Sweden for a long time and played with Don Cherry. He likes for us to play together. He’s a real drummer, he’s incredible, so I feel like I don’t have the chops to play with him, but he’s very generous.
How important is it for you for a musician to be technically proficient?
That is 50% of it I would say. If you don’t have the technique, what can you do—nothing.
What’s the other 50% then?
That is your attitude to why you play, but you have to practice every day in order for this to work. It’s a lifestyle to be able to get your chops in order.
Do you see there being a correct and incorrect attitude to which one can approach playing music?
I can only speak for myself. Even with my own band, I try to hire musicians who are better than me, so I always try to be in a context where everyone is better than I because then I can feel I can work up to that level.
For yourself, what is the correct attitude that you try to have? Is it this general spiritual aspect and playing for the universe, or is there anything else?
When I play jazz, that doesn’t really come very naturally. With a raga, you can play for hours, it can go on for the whole night. And with a raga performance, it is usually the case that you’re playing for the universe. Of course you’re aware of the audience and so on but the major thing is that it is a form of prayer. In my own music, my drone is this sound current that reminds me of the eternal bliss that can come out of sound. In other words, you change gears when you get into that, when you get into another universe altogether.
When I play jazz, if it is keyboards or piano, it’s melodic stuff and some harmonic stuff and that sort of cuts it out. So instead of having an unbroken sound, the sound is broken and you stitch it together. In this other form of music where you play with a drone, everything is running—it’s like running water. You just go with it. You do that with jazz too but because you know the piece is gonna end within an hour or something, you play towards that end. When I do my own music, it’s open-ended, there is no end until we feel we cannot do it anymore, we’re physically exhausted. It’s a different approach to music, there are different attitudes there.
When you’re working in a group setting, you said that you try to play with people who are better than you. You’ve worked with a lot of huge figures in music, and I know we already talked about Pandit Pran Nath, but who would you say influenced you the most besides him, and how?
I learned many, many lessons from La Monte Young. We never played together but throughout the ’70s we practiced together on a rather regular basis. Once, he came to Sweden and stayed with me for an extended time and we would practice together without the usual distractions that doing it in New York always carried with it. That was very uplifting. I also played with some very far-out jazz musicians that I learned a lot from.
Who were they?
In New York, there were certain musicians I had the privilege to work with. Arthur Rhames was a saxophone player and pianist, but he passed away at the end of the ’80s. We had a group together, we had Marc Johnson on bass from time to time—he was a fabulous bass player, and still is.
What were you playing in these contexts?
Arthur wanted me to play drums so that’s what I did. I also had a number of occasions to play drums with Henry Flynt from whom I learned a whole new range of sounds.
I wanted to talk to you about the works you’ve released. You have one coming up where you did a realization of a Stockhausen piece. How did you go about interpreting the text for that?
Oh, you mean Unbegrenzt.
This was in Stockholm in the ’70s. I had a studio with my drone on and everything and I rehearsed with my band there. But we were completely rejected by the establishment, we couldn’t get a gig anywhere—the radio, TV, everybody said to us to go home, that they didn’t want this type of music in town. We only played my music and my new compositions—that was the whole idea about my band—so we said, “Okay, let’s add some other composers” and Stockhausen was one, and also Terry Jennings and La Monte Young.
I didn’t know about this score until ’71 or ’72. The other cat I was playing with, Hans Isgren, he was a jazz musician too so we had met and played in jazz clubs in Stockholm. Later, we studied several of Stockhausen’s compositions together, especially Zyklus. By that time, I didn’t actually have any drums myself anymore, I had a mridangam and a tabla set and maybe there was a big tom. Oh, and I also bought this gong. He provided the other parts of the percussion—he had a marimba and temple blocks and a whole bunch of stuff. We put that together and started to play this composition, Unbegrenzt, because... you know the score, what it says?
We felt that the score described what we were doing already with my compositions. We played a sound as long as we felt in this place that was always available in this space—we had this studio that was dedicated to my sound. We used Stockhausen’s work and tried to quote what we felt was Stockhausen’s feeling.
We took these Tibetan tantra texts and the idea was to make it more theatrical, in the sense that the sound we produced was more like a narrative about somebody who was guided by sound who comes closer and closer to the goal. And the goal here was my reading of these texts. This is about an hour long, this piece, and so we spend about 40 minutes before we’re at the finale of the text. I think I spend five or ten minutes reading this text in different ways.
So that was my concept of doing Stockhausen, it was sort of entirely accidental, which is what I was trying to tell you. We wanted to enlarge our repertoire so we could get more gigs. We were practicing ragas the whole time; we didn’t listen to Stockhausen or anything like that anymore, basically. It turned out that, by that time, Stockhausen was equally hated in Sweden as myself and my band, so it was a complete miscalculation (laughter).
Last year, Blank Forms released The Deontic Miracle, that was you, Hans, and your brother. Can you speak about those pieces? How do you feel about them?
They could’ve been really great. We rehearsed in my studio for about four years and the reason I got this gig at the museum [Moderna Museet] was because I was gonna have an installation show there and I was able to smuggle in my band underneath this other thing. So in my studio, we did have great equipment but it was a small place, about 100 square meters or something, and there were stone walls so the acoustics were pretty okay.
But in the museum, we were able to have four of these large Voice of the Theatre speakers, and sixteen additional speakers that were used by Stockhausen when he did his pieces there. So we had an incredible sound system so when we finally set up everything, we started to hear what my composition was all about. In a way, what you hear on the recordings are us still rehearsing, we were finally getting toward the sound that we wanted.
You see, this was really a roaring sound, we were really up there in the decibels—the whole building was shaking. It was an incredible experience for all of us to hear this incredible sound but it only lasted for a week or so and then we had to pack up and go home. We were hoping we would get another gig because we thought this was the best sound in town at the time, and many people agreed with this. We got a bigger audience than the Swedish composers ever got when they played in the museum. We were hoping we could do this again even more intensively but none of them wanted to talk to us after this concert, and they still do not talk to me.
Yeah, this is 45 years now since I have been able to perform in Stockholm.
Why do you think they didn’t want to have you perform again? Why do you think they weren’t interested?
I got Pandit Pran Nath and La Monte Young there for concerts and they were never invited again. They just didn’t like this kind of music that was spiritual. Sweden is sort of an atheistic, unbeliever culture. You had to read Marx and Marcuse and all kinds of garbage to be hip and we didn’t do that. We liked mathematics, we liked Sanskrit texts and all kinds of things that nobody else was doing. We felt that this was more interesting than this communist-style philosophy. You had to buy into that to be part of the gang, so to speak. And also, we were not interested in alcohol, and that was sort of how these people would meet—they would meet and get drunk. That is the whole thing, that was the entire culture in Sweden at the time—alcohol and left-wing literature. We thought that was incredibly boring.
Are you uninterested in politics in general or was it just not a primary interest?
This idea that you go into a space and take it over for a period of time—that is a political statement. This music is a sort of music where you explore your inner world. And you do that in order to get your mind composed. When you’re composed in your inner world and have equilibrium, then you can sort of deal with social matters better than when you’re agitated, in my opinion. That was not considered to be a viable approach and, even today, this is an extremely marginal idea, to first fix yourself and then go out and see if you can do something useful.
We felt that we had a long way to go, that we didn’t know enough. And these people who talked, they talked off their heads, they had no idea what they were actually talking about. It was so annoying because we felt these people were ruining everything—and they did. You never had the exciting time of music that you had in the ’60s. It never came back, it was dead, completely dead. If Coltrane lived now he wouldn’t get a gig. It became a very sorry state and everybody was into consumerism and moving up, and we were not interested in that because we thought a fixed income would be fine if you could survive on it. It had to be, of course, a viable level of income.
It didn’t cost any money to go to school in Sweden when I was growing up. You didn’t pay anything to go to the university, no, they actually gave you money to go there (laughs). And so, we felt that society was investing in us so we could become good citizens, and we tried to get as great an education as possible so we could do something good, but that turned out to be a total miscalculation. Neither of us were able to enter society on any constructive level after we had presented our missive.
Who is the “we” you’re referring to?
That was basically Hans Isgren and me, we were the people who were the motor behind the band, and my brother joined us but this spiritual part was not so essential for him. He was not against it but he was not so enthused about it.
You were saying that you and Hans wanted to work on yourself. What are things that you wanted to work on, and do you feel that decades later that you have worked on yourself to the point where you’re happy?
I’ve been privileged to do what I’ve wanted to do. I did teaching for a while in the university but that was basically a disaster. Honestly, everyone understood that it was not a good idea, so I was able to get grants most of the time.
Why was it not a good idea?
I just didn’t have the talent for teaching people very well. This was in the United States and there were thirty or forty people in a class. When I studied mathematics, there were only five or six people. You had a close relationship with your teacher and it was really nice. This impersonal style in the United States with forty people and everyone wanting straight As—that was the only reason they were there, they didn’t care about the mathematics, they just wanted the A. I just felt it was an extremely depressing environment to work in.
Photo by Salih Dermitas
What are the things you can do, that you’re proud of and can offer to, I guess, the universe?
Oh, wow. That’s a hard one. (pauses).
You can take your time.
Well, people do think that I’m doing great things and everything but I know I could have done much better. I feel that I never really got the chance to do something that was extraordinary. Other people have another idea about that, but yeah.
I guess I do want you to answer for me this, though. What are you proud of that you can do, that you’ve accomplished?
Well, I’m still working on it.
What are you working on? What do you have ahead of you?
I have proofs I want to finish, I have music I want to finish, I have some writings that I want to finish. But, I have a hard time being very satisfied with the product that I come up with, I need much more time to get it right in my opinion.
Can you talk a bit about the writings and music that you still want to do?
Fifty years ago I dreamed of making a solo piece for shō but at that time they were very expensive, there were not many shōs around. I think you had to pay something on the order of $20,000 in those days if you could find one. So I never had a shō—I got a sheng instead. That instrument is not as beautiful as the shō.
Finally, I met somebody a few years ago who studied shō and he came over here a few months ago and we had started to play together. We played this piece that I wanted to write fifty years ago and, also, I have this concept of a solo for tamburas. The shō was never considered to be a solo instrument, it was an accompaniment instrument to everyone else. And it was the same with the tambura, but I felt the sounds of these instruments were so incredibly beautiful and magical that they should be given a solo role, that you should have one evening where you listen to just the tambura, or just the shō. Of course, these two instruments must not be combined although both of them have the status of sacred instruments.
The problem with the tambura is that it is difficult to move and it is difficult to keep it tuned in a concert hall. It’s hard to have climate control that’s good enough that the instrument is not affected. The audience comes in and they heat the space up and then the strings expand and you have to retune it and that’s very awkward so what I have done for this piece called “Solo for Two Tamburas and One Player” is that I play both at the same time. I found a way of doing that, which is also very unusual. I have a recording of that that I’m prepared to make as a concert.
The shō is also a little quirky in that it loses its tuning very quickly and you have to heat it up every fifteen or twenty minutes, and that takes a few minutes. And you can’t play it while you’re heating it, so you have to have two or three players who play in canons so while someone is heating an instrument, the other two players go on. And then the person who heated it can start to play while another person can start heating, that way you always have two shōs going at the same time. These are practical limitations of mechanical instruments. So with electronics, with a computer, you don’t have these limitations. That’s why I can have my drone, and it will run as long as I can play—and beyond.
I’m working on figuring out these mechanical limitations and have it as unbroken sound. You have this concept of a sound current, from both the shō and the tambura and in addition to that, I have ideas of making drones with very exotic intervals. But again, if you can only set it up for one evening, it’s not worthwhile. These are very unusual intervals so it takes a while to hear them and get inside of them. It’s sort of meaningless to invite people for three or four hours to hear one interval and then not have them hear it anymore. Our society is simply not prepared for this type of music, they don’t even consider it music in many places. This social environment is not conducive to what I want to do, basically.
Do you get upset, then, about how your music is presented in a physical format? With an LP, you can’t replicate what you get in a live setting of course.
It is not an appropriate medium for my music indeed. People insist that I have to release my records, that it’s the only way it’ll be known to other people, so that’s the only reason they exist, actually.
So if you weren’t encouraged by other people to do so, you would have probably never released any of your records?
That is correct, yes.
I know there was an issue a couple years ago, there was an LP on Important Records that features a performance of you in Krems in Austria.
Yeah, that is really terrible, it’s a bootleg. We tried to do it but it just didn’t come out well so I redacted the idea to release it, but then he went behind my back and released it anyway. So, I actually haven’t seen that record, he doesn’t speak to me anyway. The guy was really a con artist in the end. He was a friend of Lawrence Kumpf, so I felt it was okay to deal with him. Lawrence lectured him and decided to do all my releases instead—he’s very good. I have a very good relationship with him.
All my music except for the Stockhausen piece uses just intonation. I have only done just intonation since I met La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath. I stopped playing jazz, actually, and it was sort of accidental that I ended up playing with the cats in New York, but I felt it was a great opportunity to play the real way, to play with these really great musicians, so I felt before I packed up my drums forever I should learn to play first (laughter).
So that was a wonderful experience but my own music is completely divorced from that. This other form of music, I like to credit La Monte Young for introducing it, where you have a drone and you play it for as much as you want, whenever you want. That became for me a very inviting way of doing music.
What about it is inviting for you?
First of all, you have these harmonics going on all the time that puts your mind in equilibrium. And you play when you feel like it, it’s not like you have to play at 8 o’clock and stop at midnight. That is so frustrating because by midnight you’re only starting to get somewhere—it takes a few hours to even get into it.
You have that with jazz musicians too. Your first set is usually never the best set, the last set is usually the best, because at that point everyone has warmed up and gotten into it. And that’s the point where they pull the plug on the whole thing. It’s so frustrating, and simply not nice. So what happens then, what do we do after the gig? We go to someone’s studio and play until 5 o’clock in the morning, but there’s no audience there anymore. Why can’t a jazz club be open until 5 o’clock and let us play there all night? It’s completely stupid, the whole way it’s arranged.
Purchase Unbegrenzt at Bandcamp.
Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album. Artists and labels can contact Tone Glow if you would like to see download links removed.
Arthur Doyle Plus 4 - Alabama Feeling (AK-BA Records, 1978)
Though he has famous fans, Arthur Doyle will never be a household name in jazz circles. The usual parties are to blame: a lack of support in the states for Black avant-garde art led to him moving to Paris in the ’80s, where a stint in jail (which Doyle believably claimed was a police conspiracy to frame him) sidetracked his career for almost a decade. By the time he was able to release music again he was a complete maverick, so committed to the expression of his own personal style (what he called “Free Jazz Soul Music”) and so deeply unconcerned as to what the world of jazz or any potential audience could think of him that nothing would shake him from his path.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Alabama Feeling, recorded in 1978, was his first record as a band leader after some impressive work as a sideman, and it shows off his individual spirit nicely. Doyle was always passionately unconcerned with the niceties of audience-pleasing musical form and instead favored a powerfully charged aesthetic of wild, constant, intense overblowing. He plays so intensely and monomaniacally that he emotionally “fills up the bar” single-handedly, setting the energetic baseline of each track at a fever pitch and practically forcing his bandmates to mold around him. You can see it in how sharply he contrasts with Charles Stephens ‘straight’ trombone or in how the band has to utilize two drummers and an electric bass in order to compete with the raw energy pouring out of Doyle.
If we consider the decades of collective work that countless jazz musicians have gone through in order to expand the accepted boundaries of what notes and rhythms are “acceptable” to play, it’s hard not to see Doyle’s stubbornly individualistic style as a great achievement, not only in terms of the emotional expression it carries, but also as one potential endpoint of a theoretical line that starts with Dizzy Gillespie reharmonizing swing into bebop and continues with George Russell, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane searching further and further afield for their personal voice. —Samuel McLemore
OshareTV (おしゃれテレビ) - おしゃれテレビ (Midi Inc., 1986)
Like a lot of people around my age, the feature films of animation house Studio Ghibli were a formative part of my youth. I loved the imaginative worlds of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle and they opened my imagination to creative possibilities my developing brain had yet to consider, but the grand, exciting fantasy films never struck me at my core. Kiki’s Delivery Service, while containing some fantastical elements of witchcraft, was about something far more down to earth: Kiki’s journey to find strength from within; the magic comes from her own motivation, and she had to decide for herself what makes her day-to-day life worthwhile to maintain. The late Isao Takahata’s masterpiece Only Yesterday is a simple story of an adult woman re-evaluating her life while at a crossroads. Faced with the choice of taking permanent residence in the countryside or returning to the city, she finds memories of her adolescence bubbling up from the depths. I’m reminded to treasure my precious memories and remember what they taught me every time I watch it.
Most important to me, though, is the directorial debut and swan song of the late Yoshifumi Kondō, Whisper of the Heart. It’s a film I think any person with creative aspirations should watch. Faced with feelings of inadequacy as the protagonist tries to hone her craft as a creative writer only to feel unsatisfied with her progress again and again, she meets some people that help her to refocus and realizes that it’s okay to be a long way off from where you want to be, as long as everything you do inches you just the slightest bit closer. It’s hard to imagine I would be a writer without this film being an early source of encouragement for me. Kondō’s beautifully understated direction and Hayao Miyazaki’s screenplay are worthy of the praise they get for making this film so affecting, but Yuji Nomi’s score deserves no small part of the credit either. As the film bounces between the real-world setting and sudden flights of fantasy as the protagonist daydreams about her short story, Yuji Nomi’s music skillfully meets the moment in every scene. I give him at least half the credit for it being my favorite film of all time.
I say all of this to say: I knew Yuji Nomi had some incredible range, but nothing I’ve heard from him could have prepared me for OshareTV. Released on Midi Inc.—a label curated by none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto—it is one of the earliest things, if not the earliest, that features Yuji Nomi in the credits. Featuring not only Nomi’s mentor Sakamoto on piano, there’s an all star cast of musicians on this album: multi-percussionist Saeko Suzuki on drums; city pop vocalist EPO, labelmate and contemporary of the more well known singers Mariya Takeuchi and Taeko Ōnuki; Hajime Okano, a session bassist that has played with everyone from Jun Togawa to Miharu Koshi; Asuka Kaneko, a session violinist that has been on too many of my favorite to mention (though I’ll take this opportunity to at least shout out Takami Hasegawa’s L’Ecume des Jours); and, of course, Yuji Nomi writing and composing every single song. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of this album before I learned of it. It’s really rare to see such an intersection of so many things I love in one place, but even rarer still is to hear an album this good.
It’s hard to even describe what else sounds like this album. The fantasy scenes of Whisper of the Heart are an immediate point of reference, though it’s got a far more fantastical sound than even those. The closest possible comparison I could draw is to the eclectic jazz-pop stylings of Wha-ha-ha, another group I think you’re better off hearing right this second rather than reading about. Ryuichi Sakamoto loved the ascendant closing track “Asian Love” so much that he took his own crack at it a year later on his album NEO-GEO. I don’t blame him; it’s the kind of music I wish I could have come up with too. OshareTV is the sort of album that inspires me to push my own creativity to new heights, and this is the way he got his career started. I’ve got some catching up to do. —Shy Thompson
Tod Dockstader - Apocalypse (Starkland, 1993)
This compilation gathers some of Tod Dockstader’s earliest pieces, all recorded between 1960 and 1965. ‘Travelling Music’, ‘Luna Park’, and ‘Apocalypse’ originally appeared together on a 1966 LP, which referred to the music as ‘Organized Sound By Tod Dockstader’. (‘Drone’ and the inexplicably-included fragments from ‘Apocalypse’ come from another LP released the same year.) That droll description is perhaps as accurate as one can get. Dockstader’s music doesn’t really fit comfortably in the lineage of musique concrète, but it is also too spare and several decades too early to be roped in with the noise genre that would emerge and solidify over the ’80s. He did not have the support of an academic or cultural institution, and his work was not covered by avant-garde champions like The Village Voice. Rather, Dockstader worked in relative cultural solitude, and consequently discovered a sound entirely his own.
If you get a vaguely familiar, sometimes sound-effecty impression from Dockstader’s blips and trills, there’s a very good reason why. At the same time as he completed many of these pieces, Dockstader worked on the foley for a run of ’60s Tom and Jerry shorts, directed by his friend Gene Deitch. These episodes were not well-received by critics or fans, but they are worth watching now for the surreal, almost alien quality of their sound design. From the sound of Tom hammering a nail or Jerry eating watermelon, to the ‘voice’ of a one-off character who literally drops in to torment Tom for a while, the sounds here are more reminiscent of early Merzbow than anything you’d hear in the regular world. Often they drown out the show’s already-overbearing musical score.
I mention Merzbow, also, by way of allusion to the titular composition. ‘Apocalypse,’ true to its name, was some of the most abrasive, overwhelming music you might hear on record in 1966. One critic called it “doom-rock genius,” though it sounds to my ear more like all of Stockhausen’s music being played at the same time. There are digital hell-screams, demonic laughter, guttural roars and ear-shredding whines. The music does have quieter moments, but Dockstader generally follows a more-is-more tendency which runs, to my mind, entirely against the more academic musique concrète composers who prefer to consider each sound in suffocating isolation. Even the terribly misnamed ‘Drone’ bounces with electronic squeaks and blips. This is music which, despite its painstaking construction, can often sound haphazard and even silly—but which always feels uncommonly, irrepressibly alive. —Mark Cutler
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Siavash Amini - A Mimesis of Nothingness (Hallow Ground, 2020)
Press Release info: Siavash Amini returns to Hallow Ground with A Mimesis of Nothingness, his fourth album for the Swiss label. Following up on Harmistice together with fellow Iranian artists 9T Antiope, the six tracks were conceived in close collaboration with another artist and see the prolific composer intensify his interdisciplinary approach. The six tracks enter a dialogue with the photographs of Nooshin Shafiee, an acclaimed artist whose work capturing their hometown Tehran becomes the starting point for one of Amini’s most visceral and haunting records. A Mimesis of Nothingness translates the ephemeral situations and melancholic moods of Shafiee’s pictures into suspenseful soundscapes that masterfully navigate between the concrete and the abstract.
Amini met Shafiee while setting up the sound art space SEDA Projects at the Emkan gallery in Tehran where the photographer’s second solo exhibition was shown. Following the suggestion of curator Behzad Nejadghanbar, the two started a fruitful collaboration that would eventually lead to A Mimesis of Nothingness, which was written and recorded between the years 2018 and 2019 and which includes a booklet with a selection of Shafiee’s work. The two share an interest in exploring the sensual experience and the metaphysical dimensions of space. “I was fascinated by Nooshin’s approach,” explains Amini who, ever since releasing the album TAR through Hallow Ground in 2017, has focused on how our experience of places is shaped by the individual and collective subconscious. “It wasn’t the Tehran that everyone projected into their work, it was Tehran showing itself through tiny and giant overlooked places or objects.”
Amini’s music accordingly does not seek out a specific sonic picture of the city, but rather lets it come alive on its own terms. A Mimesis of Nothingness is a disquieting record precisely because it is a quiet one. Working with field recordings, Amini sculpts dynamic portraits that create an atmosphere of tangible suspense that is never fully released. Even when string-like sounds enter the picture as they do on the third track “Moonless Garden” or when the abstract and glacial noise on “Observance (Shadow)” demand the listener’s attention, the six pieces take hold of the subconscious rather than trying to be direct and confrontational. It is sound conceived not as a description, but a circumscription of spatial relations and the eeriness embedded in them.
Purchase A Mimesis Of Nothingness at Bandcamp.
Gil Sansón: Ambient music has always been a very adaptable template—a cultural hybrid from the start. For the first decade or so, it was markedly First World with constant nods to musics from outside the central European tradition, with artists like the US-born trumpet player Jon Hassell coining the term Fourth World to describe this union of musics outside the western canon and First World sensibilities. Ambient music then branched out into strands that can be described as utilitarian (the original intent of ambient music, according to Brian Eno) as well as others that can be described as dystopian, as in dark ambient. The amorphous nature of the genre means that the music retains a porous quality, with signs and codes that can be integrated as axioms at the will of the artist while keeping the ambiguity that characterizes the term.
It has taken awhile, though, for ambient music to leave the First World in a real sense. Artists like Laraaji were for a long time tokens in a white man’s game and it’s only recently that we are seeing artists from Central Asia and other latitudes becoming staples of the genre. The democratization of technology no doubt plays a big role in this. In the case of Persian artists, this happens after the world has come to grips with the wonders of Iranian cinema, so people are perhaps prepared for other cultural exports in the field of electronic and ambient music.
What Siavash Amini does here is classic dark ambient in the vein of O Yuki Conjugate: shadowy, with a deeply romantic undercurrent, harsh in places but deeply evocative nonetheless. Amini is careful to avoid lingering on a mood for too long, and the palette of sound mixes the organic and the electronic with good taste and a sense of understated drama, all while avoiding syrupy blends that turn this type of music into kitsch. This is very much night music and music to listen to alone, heavy in reverb and seemingly loaded with pathos, yet still rather inviting and velvety on its surface. The music has the right balance between the smooth and the harsh, with both serene evocations and dark thoughts, all without sounding pessimist. At times it recalls the soundtracks of Popol Vuh, and thus sometimes comes closer to the more ambient side of prog rock or the distorted surfaces of shoegaze.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I’m not convinced I’ll ever truly love a dark ambient album. The signifiers that lead to any music being labeled as such are restrictive, often pointing to how unimaginative we are in thinking about things that are “dark.” On top of that, the number of horror survival games I’ve played massively trump the majority of experiences I’ve had with “scary” music, indicating that a more engaging, multi-sensory experience ultimately outweighs what music can offer. But there’s something I was reminded of while listening to Siavash Amini’s A Mimesis of Nothingness, and that’s the fact that music can be engaged with without having to do anything at all; one can be in stasis—paralysis, even—while listening to these cavernous atmospheres.
I curled up in the fetal position on my bedroom floor while listening to A Mimesis of Nothingness (an act of “hedonistic listening” I suppose, to get myself to like this as much as possible), allowing myself to be devoured by the music. Its varied sound design—with tension created via fluctuating dynamics (“Perpetually Inwards”) and dizzying arrangements (“The Stillborn Baroque”)—ensured I was left jittery, constantly awaiting the next moment that’d elevate my heart rate. The way in which Amini traverses various styles is welcome; it’s notable that the decorum of “Moonless Garden” and “Observance (Shadow)” feel meaningful alongside the album’s more haphazard moments. Amini knows that feelings of unease and terror can creep up on you in moments both subtle and abrasive, in places both domestic and foreign, in sounds both alien and familiar. And yet, hearing this wasn’t nearly as memorable as playing, say, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s hard to think of another album in recent memory that’s so strongly both a  and a .
Mark Cutler: Amini’s work has never really spoken to me before. Primarily featuring a guitar and effects, his music has always veered on the more melodic side of dark ambient, with only occasional excursions into noisier territory. This one unfortunately is much the same. While there are individually compelling moments, the pieces overall drift by like fluffy clouds, pleasant but largely alike. A smattering of muffled voices, footsteps and other field recordings give a vague sense of movement, though not towards anything in particular. Of everything here, ‘A Collective Floudering’ feels most successful, briefly cohering into a fierce, dissonant slab of shrills and rumbles and arpeggios. It is a brief highlight after twenty-five minutes largely bereft of them. From there, however, the track unspools once more into shapeless waves, which lap around until the album plays itself out.
Jordan Reyes: What makes Amini more than an artist who provokes auditory curiosity is his ability to construe emotion at the same time. He excels at evoking tension then breaking it apart with a mournful melody, something he’s done on many of his earlier albums and also does well on A Mimesis of Nothingness. The transition from the first two dread-inducing songs on the album, “Lustrous Residue” and “Perpetually Inwards,” to the elegiac “Moonless Garden” is one such sea change. “Moonless Garden” is one of the most overtly melodic tracks on the record, but Amini manages to weave in field recordings, cracking open the space between notes with bird calls, cascading footfalls, and a light peppering of the metallic sheen from the first two tracks.
Moving from “A Collective Floundering” into “The Stillborn Baroque” is arresting, a powerful send-off. The light arpeggios buttressing the dissonant foundations of “A Collective Floundering” nod to Amini’s collaborative LP All Lanes of Lilac Evening with French electronic musician Saåad, though unlike that album, these arpeggios remain hidden in a corner of the composition as droning passages and textures come in. It’s the most sublime track on the record, continuously growing in volume and density until an airy fade into “The Stillborn Baroque,” the album’s bustling final song filled with human activity that reminds the listener of William H. Gass’s final line in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife: “You have fallen into art—return to life.”
Samuel McLemore: Much of my dislike for A Mimesis of Nothingness comes not from any particular beef I have with its musical content, but instead from a fundamental philosophical disagreement with its artistic aims and goals. If “experimental music” has true importance in society it is not simply because it adds more tools to the composer’s kit—new ways to express familiar emotions—it is because the act of exposing yourself to truly unfamiliar music strengthens and expands the boundaries of your mind in a way that no other musical expression can. This kind of experimental music is a process where the outcome is dependent entirely on the individual contexts of both listener and player, and whose goal is both intangible and incompatible with the aims of a capitalist society.
This album, on the other hand, is experimental music that is designed to be easy to understand and safe to consume, to give its audience the type of narrative and emotional experience they paid for. In other words: it is experimental music as an ossified genre instead of a living practice. Stripped of its capabilities as an experiment, we must instead judge A Mimesis of Nothingness as a composition. On this front we must admit that it is merely tepidly boring rather than being outright bad.
Sunik Kim: The sparse, disintegrating, disembodied quality of the sounds on here initially intrigues, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard all of this before—this kind of moody, ‘cinematic,’ mid-frequency soup is the slightly edgier counterpoint to the glut of filtered ‘ambient’ being churned out daily. This music is the embodiment of today’s self-identified ‘drone/noise/ambient/modern classical’ musician—what ‘experimental’ means to many today—who casually lumps together very different approaches to music that, when mashed together, lose their unique, subtle qualities and become gray mush. The best ‘drone’ works via absolute stillness and precision; the best ‘noise’ works via overwhelming, uncompromising force and chaos; the best ‘ambient’ shapes and alters the physical space around it: these approaches can maybe overlap successfully, but 99% of the time what we end up with is totally formulaic and soulless ‘noisy, ambient drone,’ aka Tim Hecker-wave. A Mimesis of Nothingness is inoffensive, neither here nor there; it has the glossy, anonymous sheen of an A24 film—carefully constructed but ultimately lacking a critical vitality.
Adesh Thapliyal: Siavash Amini found the ideal vehicle for his sound early. His breakout 2014 album Till Human Voices Wake Us evoked a Phoenician seafarer’s adventure; each song was a different episode in a dreamlike Odyssey. The firm narrative thrust suits Amini’s ambient takes on art house film scores and Romantic-era program music well: his appeal lies in how he can summon a settled fog, a rolling wave, and a black, craggy coast out of only a drone and a reverb-drenched guitar. In the latter half of this decade, Amini drifted towards more philosophical subjects like pain (FORAS), the concept of night (SERUS) and the work of Dostoevsky (What Wind Whispered to the Trees), but his gift for image drowned in those seas of abstraction.
At first glance, Amini’s latest album, A Mimesis of Nothingness, looks like an effective compromise between his ambitious concepts and his lyrical soul: it tackles as abstract a subject as the alienation of Late Capitalism, as filtered through Mark Fisher’s swan song The Weird and The Eerie, with an eye for landscape that compares favorably with Till Human Voices Wake Us. Conceptually, too, the album is airtight: it is a soundtrack to contemporary photographer Nooshin Shafiee’s oblique street photography; it intends to channel the ghostliness that Shafiee’s snaps only imply.
If the album actually did what it said, it would have been a fine demonstration of Fisher’s “strange within the familiar” that the theorist associated with the eerie, if a bit weak in grappling with the second half of his argument, which is that eeriness is linked with our commodity fetishism. But the crucial failing of Nothingness is that its ponderous drones and cinematic feel miss the eerie to land in the ominous, which is something else entirely. The eerie is quotidian; the ominous is grand; the eerie is a subjective, slight feeling, the ominous is a formal, solemn one. Though the ominous once structured our moral systems, we can no longer summon the clarity required to apprehend ill omen: after all, sensing the emotion requires us to come to terms with the escalator of carnage our civilization is calmly riding upwards. As a result, the ominous is now disappearing from our emotional world; one consequence is that when America heard that it will be savaged by twin hurricanes while the West Coast burns and the whole country suffers through the worst pandemic in a century, the most it could muster in response was Twitter jokes and political shit-flinging by the blue-check commentariat.
Iran is no exception to the world’s increasing emotional deprivation, and Amini’s attempt, as described in the press copy, to “take hold of the subconscious” does not succeed because it tries to reach our minds through a pathway that no longer exists. Nothingness does not provoke real feeling, and as a result, Amini’s ambient, minimalist soundscapes feel as flat as those on a Triple-A video game soundtrack, where this kind of drone-heavy arrangement has become shorthand to represent, like, caves and flashbacks and really anything vaguely spooky, mystical, or exotic. Even at its best, like the duet between chirping and wailing birds in “Moonless Garden,” the album manages only to channel the faint shadow of a long-dead feeling—certainly a worthy project, but one undertaken far more comprehensively in last year’s Disco Elysium OST by British Sea Power, or even Amini’s own All Lanes of Lilac Evening (with Saåad) from earlier this year. The few truly uncanny moments, like the magical transformation of human voices into birdsong in ‘The Stillborn Baroque,” are simply not enough.
Vladislav Delay, Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare - 500-Push-Up (Sub Rosa, 2020)
Press Release info: From Mille Plateaux to Leaf, Staubgold, and Raster-Noton, ~scape, among others, or on his own label Ripatti, the Finnish artist Sasu Ripatti, aka Vladislav Delay, has been exploring various iterations of the “dub culture vs. electronica”, since 1997. His sonic crafts and unique signature sound have been sought after by an eclectic range of bands and artists, ranging from Massive Attack, Hauschka, Black Dice, Autopoieses, Animal Collective, or AGF. Vladislav Delay met Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (the most prolific Jamaican rhythm section and production duo) thanks to a series of jam sessions. Trumpet player Nils-Petter Molvaer had been asked by the Jamaicans to join them and he invited Delay alongside guitar player Eivind Aarset to tag along, which eventually turned into the Nordub project.
The result of these jam sessions turned into an album, mixed and mostly produced by Vladislav Delay, released on the label Okeh. It was also followed by an extensive series of live dates. This one-shot reunion was the beginning of another story: a trio composed by Delay, Dunbar, and Shakespeare. In January 2019, Vladislav Delay went to Kingston and spent some days at The Anchor studios, to record drums and bass with S&R, some voice takes and a series of atmospheric field recordings. Back to Finland, Delay started to experiment with this precious material, mixing, and overdubbing, in the comfort and quiet of his studio, based on the island of Hailuoto, Baltic Sea, Northern Finland, giving another feeling to the Jamaican trip. This became a tribute to the "dub spirit", but in a very personal way, far beyond any influence or “the obvious”.
500-Push-Up is two worlds collapsing, merging, also showing some intriguing approach of the Jamaican groove, used as a filigree, like the echo or the ghost of reggae, converging and conversing with a post-industrial and experimental approach. To file beside experiments -- for instance -- such as Lee Perry’s Scientist Rids The World Of The Evil Curse Of The Vampires (1981) or the On U-Sound productions. Somewhere between the old-school electronica culture, the soundscaping, the experimental paths of Lee Perry and Adrian Sherwood, ghostly clubbing anthems, minimalism, pop, jazz, without being influenced, Vladislav Delay is building a drifting and coherent sound enigma. Personnel: Vladislav Delay - electronics, sampling, percussion; Sly Dunbar - drums; Robbie Shakespeare - bass. CD version includes two additional tracks.
Purchase 500-Push-Up at Forced Exposure.
Marshall Gu: One of the first things we hear on 500-Push-Up is an announcement: “Kill ‘em with RIDDIM today, RIDDIM like nothin’,” and I’m skeptical at first. Not of the superstar rhythm section Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, who have proven themselves about a hundred times over, but in 2020, are we sure these riddims will be "like nothin’" we haven’t heard before? About two minutes later, Dunbar enters with a sturdy beat over a head-nodding bass-line from Shakespeare, and I’ve already forgotten what there was to be skeptical about, especially once Vladislav Delay adds his treatments—an intoxicating buzz, swelling and threatening to swallow up the rhythm section as the drums take on an industrial flavour.
500-Push-Up might seem long: none of its nine songs clock under five minutes, and two of them are seven minutes in length, but it crucially never feels that way thanks to patient layering from Vladislav Delay. The different riddims also distinguish these songs from one another even though their song titles are random numbers between 512 and 522 in parentheses. For example, there’s the militant drumming on “(520)” that makes it feel like something alien and magnificent is on its way, or the tribal drumming that makes up the base of “(516),” while “(514)”’s blippy electronics recall the Scientist. The dancier cuts, like “(519),” with its insistent drum beat and playful bass-line, work better than the ones that are purely atmosphere a la “(522),” which amplify Dunbar’s bass-pulse and adds some clatter around it. All told, I’d say they accomplished the goal they set out at the start.
Mark Cutler: Given that this trio has played together extensively, both live and on record, and that this material is not a live jam but has apparently been worked over by Delay after the fact, it’s surprising how often it sounds like two unrelated albums playing at the same time. Likewise, the tracks that most cohere are the ones where it’s hardest to identify Delay’s contribution, as with the straight-from-the-90s romper ‘(512)’. Otherwise, the skittering electronics offer an interesting if not compelling counterpoint to Sly and Robbie’s typically excellent dub jams. The instrumentation is a little more aggressive and blown-out here than fans of their classic LPs might expect—perhaps this is also Delay’s hand at work. Overall, however, this is not the collaboration I’d hoped for from these three titanic names.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I’ve heard 500-Push-Up in various settings—while in my car, while walking around my neighborhood, while biking around town, while in my bedroom—and it turns out the most exciting way for me to hear this is through my phone speakers during the middle of the night while half asleep. This is an album that’s rarely about granular details; it actually sounds worse when everything is clear—the production is surprisingly ineffective in tying everything together, these songs rarely feeling individually cohesive. But what continues to shine for me every time I turn this album on is the hulking thrust of the rhythms, the sound of warped pop songs hanging in the background, the sudden assault of double-time drums, the carnivalesque swirl of electronics, the psychedelic walls of amassing noise. I’m easily entertained by the physicality of it all when dozing off, impressed by the immediacy of such dazzling arrangements. It sounds like I’m sleeping under a sky full of fireworks: comforted enough to find rest, happy enough that I didn’t miss the light show.
Leah B. Levinson: The album’s opening is evocative and simple: a bassline oscillating with loose inference of a groove, chatter hovering above. As this base is deconstructed, processed signals slip further forward than is comfortable, denying an evocation of space, instead causing an interruption. 500-Push-Up creates a mystical affect, a world-ness, entering, enveloping, and, occasionally, pulling away.
Throughout the album, Shakespeare’s bass sounds remarkable, super-compressed and booming. Against the crisp timbre of Dunbar’s kit and Vladislav Delay’s bit-reduced whirs, a non-acoustic landscape takes the stage, a space too dry and present to really exist: anechoic yet cacophonous. Grounded by deep and non-idiomatic grooves, these otherwise middling and sonically unremarkable soundscapes become fairly alluring. Sly & Robbie’s foothold leaves a carved out space for Ripatti’s unrestrained clatter and chirp to take the lead. Still, each time the din cuts away to reveal Robbie’s bass, unaffected, I can’t help but yearn for a bass-only cut, if only to have the chance to sit with it in its lush simplicity.
The rhythm duo’s strength is not only the precision and bounce of their groove, but their ability to raise groove itself to a hallucinatory means of expression. Many of the grooves herein are idiosyncratic, gurgling and unsteady, anxious yet unsated, reaching out into uncertain depths. Sly & Robbie defy gravity on tracks like “(512)” and “(514),” pulling considerable weight while Ripatti’s noxious textures fill in for an absent deejay. While the latter’s cuts, edits, and mixes are clearly integral to the work as it stands, I find myself wishing his oscillators gave more depths and heft. These pestering lead voices aside, the trio’s work is dizzying, capable of losing a listener at any turn.
All in all and for the better, it gives little to grasp. The album’s title is intentionally opaque, seemingly derived from an inside joke according to Joshua Minsoo Kim’s interview with Ripatti. This ambiguity goes hand in hand with non-sequentially numbered track titles for music stripped of nearly all genre-signifiers (if only showing a light shadow of dub and industrial) to present a nicely hazy project, a labyrinth to enter into, divorcing itself from its own context as quickly as it calls upon it.
Gil Sansón: The ability to turn any music genre into his own brand of electronica is what gives Vladislav Delay his strong reputation. Does he strike gold here as he does every so often? Yes and no. 500-Push-Up sounds much more like a Delay party with Sly & Robbie as guests than as a party hosted by all three, at worst sounding like a typical ’90s remix project. The Berlin/Kingston promise doesn’t really materialize, the typical oil and water metaphor coming to mind more than once, beats often sounding more martial than stoned—it’s not loose enough. The low end, having to compete with Delay’s trademark high frequencies, often loses ground and the whole sounds more machine than sound system. I suppose it works in a certain sense, painting a dystopian picture of an electronic dub monster roaming free in Berlin clubs, but as dub music it’s way too stiff to seduce these ears.
It’s a bit ironic, then, because dub music is such an enduring influence on northern European electronica, from Pan Sonic to Pole to Delay himself, that this record feels like a wasted opportunity in many ways. And the main culprit here is Delay himself, smothering Sly & Robbie with his sound and leaving no room for the spaciousness of dub to present itself. He turns one of the most endearing rhythm sections in Jamaican roots music into robots, the listening experience being both claustrophobic and one-dimensional.
So in the end, the record sounds like a Vladislav Delay amoeba absorbing Sly & Robbie, diluting their essence until you can detect some of their characteristics but not what makes them valuable. A few tracks have hooks that work, like “(516),” but it never sounds anything remotely Jamaican; it features a sticky bassline that dub lovers appreciate,but it’s much closer to Techno Animal than anything else. On the whole, 500-Push-Up is a disappointment.
Sunik Kim: Coming to dub through the very greatest hits makes listening to contemporary versions extremely difficult, regardless of the legendary status of the players; your ear gets used to the exact studios, microphone arrangements, drugs, tape transfers, shitty rips, etc. that make the classics so good (I have the same problem with a lot of contemporary jazz). Some might say this is an unfair standard, but it's hard to control what the ear is drawn towards, and what it gets accustomed to. ‘Updated’ approaches often fall into artificial attempts to emulate the classic sound, which often end up off by just a hair, just enough to make one ask why they’re listening to this rather than the original from decades ago; or they add something ‘new’ (modern studio/production tricks, ‘electronics,’ etc.) that often carries less-than-thrilling performances and execution and falls into gimmickry rather than genuine innovation.
500-Push-Up falls mostly towards the latter. Within seconds, things just sound off: there’s too much cavernous reverb on everything, especially the vocals, rather than the subtler, more judicious application of dub delay and spring reverb—warping and intervening at the perfect moments—on the classics; the ‘electronics’ are often actively annoying (the wailing synth line on “(512)” sounds like a DJ Snake drop); and the production sounds thin and flat rather than robust—it’s nominally ‘hi-fi,’ but sounds like it was recorded in an empty auditorium or gymnasium, whereas the best dub—what makes it so special—is present, weighty, enveloping. Lacking both the thump of the best dub and any truly exciting experimentation, 500-Push-Up goes nowhere fast; it’s hard to tell who this release appeals to beyond diehard fans of the artists in question.
Alex Mayle: This is the worst reggae album I’ve ever heard. Every time I give this a listen my brain turns into a grainy mush, which is the best way you could describe these songs. There is certainly an interesting psychedelic vibe here, and I like the general sonic palette, but anything good about the music is obscured by the lack of energy or an enjoyable rhythm. “(514)” features some of the most engaging textures but is way too fucking long and the noise is only dressing up an otherwise offensively bad beat.
Why the tracks on this album average more than five minutes is baffling to me. There’s an attempt to build an atmosphere with this duration but the soundscapes are paper-thin, consisting of a few cool sounds cobbled together in an unpleasant fashion. It’s cohesive, but the whole package is ruined by this most important component failing in the worst possible way. I’m genuinely struggling to find anything interesting to say about this album because the most I get out of it is an apathy tinged with annoyance. That might be the worst sin committed by Vladislav Delay, Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare: this is 50 minutes of music that’s utterly bland.
Mariana Timony: To describe a record as “dreamlike” is a cliché, but it feels an appropriate one with which to describe the experimental blending of Jamaican dub and half-atmospheric, half-industrial electronic music that is 500 Push-Up, a record which, while being somewhat high concept—Finnish producer Vladislav Delay meets dub and reggae legends Sly & Robbie, you won’t believe what happens next!—is itself consistently too interesting and unique to be reduced to descriptive buzzwords, even though that is what I just did. The sonics on 500 Push-Ups swell and contract, their impressions more spectral than material, like faint transmissions from half-remembered radio stations broadcasting from opposite sides of the globe. They’re echoing and oddly soothing, in a way, but too artfully constructed and honestly too groovy to be reduced simply to background noise. Not to say 500 Push-Up wouldn’t work a treat if you’re just looking for something to make filling out spreadsheets less annoying, but the record invites and even rewards close listening to further unlock how well-matched this meeting of minds is. Don’t think too hard, though. This sort of puzzle would suffer from being taken apart, its pieces reduced to functional familiarity, but when admired as a whole work 500 Push-Up is admirable for its intricacy, daring, and general weirdness.
Still from Vagabond (Agnes Varda, 1985)
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