“In the nature of the use of chance operations is the belief that all answers answer all questions.”
In 1952, David Tudor sat down in front of a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and did nothing. The piece 4’33” written by John Cage, is possibly the most famous and important piece in twentieth century avant-garde. 4’33” was a distillation of years of working with found sound, noise, and alternative instruments. In one short piece, Cage broke from the history of classical composition and proposed that the primary act of musical performance was not making music, but listening.
Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage studied for a short time at Pamona College, and later at UCLA with classical composer Arthur Schoenberg. There he realized that the music he wanted to make was radically different from the music of his time. “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ So I said, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.'” But it wasn’t long before Cage found that there were others equally interested in making art in ways that broke from the rigid forms of the past. Two of the most important of Cage’s early collaborators were the dancer Merce Cunningham and the painter Robert Rauschenberg.
Together with Cunningham and Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College, Cage began to create sound for performances and to investigate the ways music composed through chance procedures could become something beautiful. Many of Cage’s ideas about what music could be were inspired by Marcel Duchamp, who revolutionized twentieth-century art by presenting everyday, unadulterated objects in museum settings as finished works of art, which were called “found art,” or ready-mades by later scholars. Like Duchamp, Cage found music around him and did not necessarily rely on expressing something from within.
Cage’s first experiments involved altering standard instruments, such as putting plates and screws between a piano’s strings before playing it. As his alterations of traditional instruments became more drastic, he realized that what he needed were entirely new instruments. Pieces such as “Imaginary Landscape No 4″(1951) used twelve radios played at once and depended entirely on the chance broadcasts at the time of the performance for its actual sound. In “Water Music” (1952), he used shells and water to create another piece that was motivated by the desire to reproduce the operations that form the world of sound we find around us each day.
While his interest in chance procedures and found sound continued throughout the sixties, Cage began to focus his attention on the technologies of recording and amplification. One of his better known pieces was “Cartridge Music” (1960), during which he amplified small household objects at a live performance. Taking the notions of chance composition even further, he often consulted the “I Ching,” or Book of Changes, to decide how he would cut up a tape of a recording and put it back together. At the same time, Cage began to focus on writing and published his first book, “Silence” (1961). This marked a shift in his attention toward literature.
In the ’70’s, with inspirations like Thoreau and Joyce, Cage began to take literary texts and transform them into music. “Roratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake” (1979), was an outline for transforming any work of literature into a work of music. His sense that music was everywhere and could be made from anything brought a dynamic optimism to everything he did. While recognized as one of the most important composers of the century, John Cage’s true legacy extends far beyond the world of contemporary classical music. After him, no one could look at a painting, a book, or a person without wondering how they might sound if you listened closely.
In 1959, noted American author and composer Paul Bowles made several trips around Morocco recording as many strains of Moroccan traditional music as he could capture. Bowles curated some of these recordings for release on a 1972 2-LP set "Music of Morocco" issued by the Library of Congress.
Bowles recounts some of the experiences of the 1959 recording project in the essay "The Rif, to Music" in his essay collection "Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue". For a deep dive into Bowles' musical upbringing and aesthetics and how these inform his recording project, it's well worth seeking out Philip Schuyler's essay "Music of Morocco: The Paul Bowles Collection", included in the 4-CD reissue and expansion of the Library of Congress album, released in 2016 by Dust to Digital. This release is one of the most beautiful artifacts in my own stash - from the ornate box to the leatherette-bound booklet down to the track selection, sequencing, and notes, everything was done with great care, thought, and taste.
If you can't find the box set, the album is available to purchase digitally at Bandcamp, including a pdf of the booklet. The album is also available to stream online through various platforms, though of course without the reading materials:
I had meant to post something about this back in 2016, but did not manage to do so. While scrolling through Twitter last week, I stumbled across a YouTube clip of a Gnawa recording I'd not heard before, originating from the Bowles' collection, but not issued as part of the LP or CD sets. The video was uploaded by Archnet, a digital resource sponsored by MIT and the Agha Khan Trust for Culture.
It turns out that Archnet has made the entire collection available online in YouTube form! 60 reels of tape! As Michael Toler of Archnet explains on his blog, these clips are raw transfers of the original tapes, so do not expect them to sound like the versions on Dust to Digital's release, which were nicely mastered to improve sound quality.
Still, what an amazing gift to be able to hear these tapes! As an additional gift, Archnet has uploaded a scan of Bowles' own typed notes on the recordings, which accompanied their submission to the Library of Congress: http://archnet.org/publications/10093. Excerpts from these notes appear in the Dust to Digital booklet, but you can now see the whole set.
An interview with Senyawa + our writers panel on Music From Memory's 'Heisei No Oto' compilation and Fred Frith & Ikue Mori's 'A Mountain Doesn't Know It's Tall'
Senyawa are an Indonesian duo made up of Wukir Suryadi (homemade instruments) and Rully Shabara (vocals). The two met at a music festival in 2010 and shortly thereafter recorded their debut self-titled EP. In the decade since, they’ve collaborated and performed with a slew of artists including Keiji Haino, Melt-Banana, and Stephen O'Malley. Their newest album, Alkisah, finds the duo honing their craft of blending traditional and contemporary music and is being released by 44 different record labels from around the world. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Senyawa on February 12th, 2021 to discuss Alkisah, the geopolitical implications of the album’s release strategy, how they’ve both grown while in this duo, and more
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello! How are you?
Rully Shabara: Hi! I’m good.
Wukir Suryadi: Hello! How are you?
It’s 11PM, so I’m a little tired. I was just in another Zoom call for the past four hours, but it’s all good. You know, I wanted to start off by asking: What’s something right now that’s bringing you two joy?
Rully Shabara: For me it’s creating music in a more innovative way, which has to happen because we’re in a pandemic. We’re both musicians, and this is what we do, and I just want to keep making more music in more innovative ways. And we’re doing it to survive; if I don’t do it, I don’t know what else I’d do.
Wukir Suryadi: It’s the same for me too. Music is the only bullet we have.
Bullet against what?
Wukir Suryadi: We need music for our life and in this struggle. We need to do something because we need food. We’re not just two people, actually. There are many people behind the scenes. And we’re always thinking about how to work with people who have the same vision as us.
Rully Shabara: Bullet is a good word. You need bullets for fights, so we make music to have as many bullets as we can.
This doesn’t have to be a person, but would you say that you have an enemy, then, that you’re using these bullets against?
Rully Shabara: The idea is that as musicians, we want to have something that can hit you. We don’t want it to be just another piece of music or just another piece of art—it has to have an impact.
Wukir Suryadi: This co-releasing method that we have [Editor’s note: Senyawa have released their new album Alkisah on 44 labels from around the world] is not about survival of the fittest. It’s survival of those who share. If we only care about people who can adapt and survive, what about the people who can’t? It’s all about sharing. The more we can share, the more we survive—more people will survive.
It’s about the community.
Rully Shabara: Yeah.
Wukir Suryadi: You don’t want it to be too big, though. Don’t try and change the world—it’s more about who’s closest to you.
Who is the community that you have, that you feel close to and want to support?
Rully Shabara: Any collective that has their own vision or style or idea. Even if we don’t agree with them, it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point. Everyone has their own character, and that’s good, no? The more individual ideas, the better.
Did you two have close families growing up?
Rully Shabara: Yes, but from an early age we were already living alone. I’m from outside of Java on Sulawesi island and Wukir is from East Java.
How old were you two when you lived on your own?
Rully Shabara: I was 15 when I moved to Java on my own, and I’m 38 now.
Wukir Suryadi: I left my house when I was 12. Now I’m 43.
Do you mind sharing about your experiences from back then?
Rully Shabara: The language was different—I didn’t know the Javanese language. So everybody spoke a language that I didn’t understand, and the culture was different too. It was a shock. I was only a teenager, so it felt really different. The way they joke, I didn’t understand it and I didn’t like it—I didn’t find it funny! Everybody would be laughing while I wasn’t (laughter). I think that memory represents what it was like to be in this new culture. And it wasn’t their fault I didn’t understand, it was mine; I was there, so I should try to understand more of the culture.
Once I learned the Javanese language, it took me to a different place. Since then, all my explorations and studies and works have been about exploring language in this nontraditional sense—through sound. And it’s a resource that everybody has. It’s personal and it’s powerful.
Wukir Suryadi: Have you been to Indonesia?
I have not, no.
Wukir Suryadi: Every territory has their own language. I’m from East Java, but if I go to Bandung [in West Java], there’s already a different language. It’s different if you live in the mountains or in the city—it’s different everywhere. I like connecting with all of these people because they all have their own character, so that’s why I moved around a lot. And if you wanted to learn about art, like I did, you went to Jakarta. You can learn to become anybody in Jakarta.
How did you two first meet?
Rully Shabara: We met on stage at the Yes No Klub in Yogyakarta for a regular, independent music event here. Wok the Rock [who runs Yes No Wave Music] invited us and we improvised on stage together. This was in 2010, and then four days after that we decided to record the EP that’s on Yes No Wave.
The instrumentation may be radically different, but in their own way Indonesian duo Senyawa are as heavy and as foreboding as anything in the metal canon, finds Tom Coles.
Senyawa's chaotic approach to experimental music owes a lot to the cut and thrust of heavy metal. Alkisah is a destructive, scattered, and dramatic record, and the band’s previous experiments with metal royalty are teased through every pore. But their real power comes from a clear understanding of the emotional intentions of metal’s loudest and most devastating form, and by transposing moods and textures to a different set of instruments, they get to the same sinister conclusion through radically different methods.
The core emotional intention on Alkisah is to create a mortifying sense of dread, which they achieve through clashing vocals, sinister repetition of single notes and bassy percussion rolls, held to create tension. The homemade instruments bridge the gap between traditional folk styles and contemporary music; the bamboo creations create an esoteric sound, enormous stringed instruments and arcane percussion clattering over one another. There’s something particularly spiky and abrasive here that immediately shares common ground with heavy metal; it’s heard in every idea that strains toward ending in raw noise and every unusual sound that feels like it was engineered deliberately to create discord. Although the presentation is radically different, the mode closest to their aims is doom metal, which seeks to create an oppressive, dour mood and does so with lugubrious riffs, thunderous, plodding drums, and phenomenal volume.
This connection to doom's particular brand of darkness is perhaps unsurprising given their most recent collaboration with Sunn O)))'s Stephen O’Malley, a man who works on the furthest fringe of extreme metal. Here at tQ, we labelled their collaboration, Bima Sakti, as “visceral and elemental.” Comparing the two, that record summoned a dour mood very much in the vein of O’Malley’s usual work, using the guitar as a weapon rather than an instrument, creating languishing, drawn-out dronescapes with Senyawa’s instrumentation peppering the flailing, stuttering guitars. Dense and foreboding, explorative and abstract, it’s a punishing listen. On Alkisah, Senyawa take that sense of exploration but dial the heavy metal thunder back a step, giving the record a much broader approach to convey emotional nuance.
By eschewing the reliance on pure sonic power, Senyawa are able to use a much broader array of moods that contribute to a more colourful picture of darkness. Importantly, although these moods undulate, they all have one focus, which is the creation of impending doom; the voices raised in celebration gradually become mired in a grim swamp, and the clatter of voices which could be welcoming and warm quickly morph into indistinct chaos. Elsewhere the record is dark, foreboding, and scattered; there are parallels to be drawn from doom’s own use of non-traditional song structures and textures, which gives them the scope to expend our suffering.
Read the whole article HERE.
. all photographs were taken in the frenetic, noisy and colorful life of Ballaro, Palermo - during December 2020 by Jonas Meier. Copies are being distributed wherever possible