Marcus Boon is Professor of English at York University, author of In Praise of Copying and The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, and coauthor of Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism. His new book The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice explores music as a material practice of vibration in which different historical and geographical scenes, negotiating the political limits of the worlds they inhabit, attempt to creat a vibrational space of individual and collective transformation.
The Politics of Vibration sets out new ways of thinking about what music is. It proposes that music should be thought of as the generation of particular types of vibrational space. The book focuses on the work of three musicians who produce such vibrational spaces—they might seem to belong to very different worlds: Hindustani raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, Swedish drone composer and mathematician Catherine Christer Hennix, and Houston based hip hop originator of the chopped and screwed sound, DJ Screw. What these musicians have in common is an interest in slowing music—and therefore time—down. When you slow music and time down, you start to become aware of space, vibrational space. You also start to exit the dominant time regime—which is where, perhaps surprisingly, the politics of vibration comes in. Following Isabelle Stengers I use the word “cosmopolitics” to describe the kinds of political disputes that ensue concerning the ontology of music. And following my mentor, Catherine Christer Hennix, I consider what kinds of music, sound and vibration are permissible in a society? In other words, what music is allowed to be.
If you are exposed to the richness of vibrational space via music, your sense of ontology changes—vibrational space gathers scenes, musical scenes around it, the way a flower gathers bees in the summertime. These scenes can tell us something about how to live, how we might live, according to what is most valuable, what transforms us. That’s the wager of my book. I’m not sure to capture all of that in a video clip, but it’s all there in probably my favorite film about music, Mani Kaul’s 1983 Dhrupad, an experimental documentary about the Indian Dhrupad masters, the Dagar Brothers:
Composing a playlist for my book is a challenging thing to do because the vibrational spaces in which music’s power unfolds cannot be reduced to recordings or YouTube clips (although those things may play a role!). Nonetheless, recordings can point us in important directions — and as with DJ Screw or the Jamaican dancehall scene that Julian Henriques explored in wonderful detail in his book Sonic Bodies—powerful vibrational spaces can be created around recordings. This is captured wonderfully in John Akomfrah’s 1986 documentary Handsworth Songs about the Black community in Handsworth, UK, for example in this clip of the mighty Jah Shaka sound system:
I didn’t set out to write a book about slow music, but Pandit Pran Nath, Catherine Christer Hennix and DJ Screw all make music that is slow: Pran Nath’s focus on the alaap section of the raga, Hennix’s drones and Screw’s chopped and screwed mixtapes are all concerned with slowing time down and what happens when you do this, something psychotropic, something in which a new kind of space—vibrational space—opens up to perception. That space is not there only for slow music—but slowing things down can help us attune ourselves to its existence.
In terms of a slowed down sound, it’s worth listening to Pandit Pran Nath’s teacher/guru, master of the Kirana gharana, Abdul Wahid Khan. Waheed Khan was a reclusive man and not many recordings by him exist. One of the recordings he made for All India Radio is here:
Singer Salamat Ali Khan said of him that “he would begin to improvise in Lahore, and you could travel to Delhi and back, and he would still be improvising.” According to master sarod-player Ali Akbar Khan, when most singers went to the radio station, they would sing their ragas and go home. Abdul Wahid Khan would continue for another 20 hours or so. Once, a disciple asked Abdul Wahid Khan why he only sang two ragas, Todi, a morning raga, and Darbari, an evening raga. Abdul Wahid Khan responded that he would have dropped the latter, if the morning would last forever.
You can hear Wahid Khan’s style if you listen to maybe his most famous student Hirabai Barodekar — and you can hear it when you listen to Pandit Pran Nath — for example his remarkable version of Raga Malkauns, as recorded by minimalist OG La Monte Young in 1976 in New York:
Note the rich and dense sound of the tamburas—recorded in such a way that minimalism and rock are somehow there even as the recording stays true to tradition. For Pandit Pran Nath music’s core was a matter of practice, of taking care of the voice and of attunement to the raga’s unfolding in the contingency and necessity of the moment. Probably the best way to start understanding Pran Nath’s approach to music is via William Farley’s beautiful short 1986 documentary In Between the Notes: A Portrait of Pandit Pran Nath, with its scenes of Pran Nath practicing in various places outdoors.
Swedish composer and mathematician Catherine Christer Hennix, whose work is discussed in chapter 2 of the book, was instructed by Pran Nath to continue her research into the mathematical and other possibilities of vibrational space, as her musical contribution. Her most famous recording, The Electric Harpsichord, made in 1976 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm during her ten day festival of sounds, is apparently built around the scale for Raga Multani—but it exists in a very different sound world to traditional Indian music:
In my years of conversations with Hennix, I gradually came to understand an entirely new kind of philosophy of music that she was setting out—and I try to track that in my book in both the chapter on her sound works, and the chapter entitled “Music and the Continuum.” I can’t really unpack it all here, but fundamental to the book is the idea of target states, something that Hennix discusses: music can aspire to states of elevation, spiritual transformation that are both individual and collective. While many musicians and listeners might agree with that, Hennix has pursued the question of whether there are particular kinds of logic, practice or musical procedure that can generate these states – in fact that for her is a meaningful definition of composition, a “Deontic Miracle” to use the name of one of her bands from the 1970s … “deontic” … a set of logical rules governing an ethics of permission and/or prohibition … “miracle” … something that happens despite its impossibility … “deontic miracle” … a set of logical rules that generate a miracle. You can hear this at work in this 2014 live recording of Hennix’s Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage performing Blues Alif Lam Mim—but you have to listen through and allow the sound to open up and engage you:
While Hennix insists that it is only perhaps a very limited number of musics that actually pursue these ideas with complete rigor—my own feeling is that all music worth the name pursues this kind of “deontic miracle” to varying degrees. It doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of advanced mathematics—it requires the ability to improvise a sonic or vibrational pattern out of the social, political and environmental possibilities of the moment in such a way that it moves people. The idea that there are mathematical aspects to such improvisation is an intriguing one—and in the chapter “Music and the Continuum” I pursue the idea by comparing Hennix’s ideas with those of Guerino Mazzola, whose epic book The Topos of Music presents an expansive and nuanced take on music and mathematics—and through thinking about Julian Henriques aforementioned work in Sonic Bodies, in which he explores the various vibrational bandwidths involved in a successful Jamaican sound system session. From this I develop the mathematical/philosophical idea of a topos as a model for vibrational space—a space in which transformations can happen. I look at different musics, from Philip Corner’s metallophone experiments, to waterfalls, Keiji Haino’s sound experiments, Sri Karunamayee’s impossible singing scales, to raga folk guitarist Peter Walker’s recent performances and the Toronto based Prince cover band Snow in April.
I love this footage of Walker from 2009—a music that is all improvisational nuance and a beautiful example of what Mazzola means when he talks about music as involving a gestural topos, the music not just the notes, but the gestures which are the necessary condition of the sounds that emerge. Indeed: emerges, in the sense that Walker himself looks surprised and delighted when certainly note sequences occur, and sometimes looks towards the audience to see if they heard it too. For listening is gestural too.
Juxtaposing Houston based DJ Screw with Pandit Pran Nath and Catherine Christer Hennix might seem like a strange thing to do. Honestly, these were the sounds that I found myself listening to again and again over the last decade—and it is only when I started to write about Screw that I started to feel the connections and commonalities in terms of a slowed down sound, a radical experiment with time and vibration, and a very underappreciated one, thus also one with its own politics. Screw was a hip hop DJ, and used the variable speed controller on his turntables and cassette recorder to slow the music he played down. Screw created vibrational spaces … they appear like a miracle when he slows things down — listen for example to the stunning mix he made of Erykah Badu’s “Otherside of the Game:”
It might seem like for Screw, whose almost entire oeuvre consists of a series of 300 plus mixtapes, music was “nothing but the recordings,” yet the gatherings of MCs nightly in the “wood room” of his house in south side Houston in the 1990s also generated a powerful vibrational space that was then transmitted to the massed car stereos of Texas, slowing down time under the most hostile and racialized conditions. In terms of long form slowed music, Screw’s most famous track the 37 minute collective freestyle often just known as “June 27th” on the mixtape Screw made for Demo Sherman on his birthday in 1996 has a powerful sense of social space as vibrational space:
These are all tracks about time, about time that gets suspended, stretched, or compressed, as Fred Moten says in his essay “Black Topological Existence,” into a “topological existence” based on “a mechanics of distress”. That’s particularly the case with Screw’s version of UGK’s “One Day”—especially the 14 minute version to be found on Chapter 70, Endonesia, with its reciting of many friends and family deceased, doing time or elsewhere.
Those who want to know more should read Lance Scott Walker’s excellent new biography of Screw, or his oral history of Houston hip hop, Houston Rap Tapes.
There’s maybe no easy exit to space the way the white avant gardes tried to imagine it. But that then is the politics of vibration as someone like Sun Ra meant when he said “space is the place”. In fact, I don’t think there’s an easy exit to space for anyone — powerful though variable chains, mental and otherwise, block this for all of us today, and thus we have music in the reified and packaged state that we mostly experience it as. But music can be and often is a project for undoing this, and that is what the musicians in my book do. In my book, I conclude with some lessons learnt by talking with and listening to Canadian indigenous hiphop crew until recently named A Tribe Called Red, now known as The Halluci Nation. Listen to their synthesis of electronics, sound system culture and traditional indigenous pow wow music, as on “Electric Pow Wow Drum” with its Cree war cry and pow wow rhythms from their first record:
Bear Witness, a member of the crew, reminds us that music sound and vibration emerge from the land, from our own living heartbeats no matter how this is obscured in settler colonial cultures. That is what we mean by cosmopolitics and music as a cosmopolitical practice. We all come to music from different positionalities, and in a sense all human societies improvise the object/event called music out of the environment’s possibilities. This is true of traditional musics—but it is also prospectively true, in the sense that new arrangements, new articulations can and will happen, and our work (and joy) is to amplify and deepen the possibility of those new sounds and the forms of life that gather around them.