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These rock formations, near the towns of Adrspach and Teplice in the Czech Republic, near the border with Poland, receive thousands of visitors daily, despite their remote location. It took us about 4 hours to drive from Liberec to Adrspack. We spent about an hour of that time standing on the shoulder of the road, scratching our heads, Czech phrasebook in hand, trying to decipher ominous looking road-signs.
While looking for interesting, original and avant-garde Czech musicians in my research leading up to this trip, I discovered the Industrial/Noise band Zabloudil(a). Because of them, I learned that Zabloudil means “I’m lost” in Czech (If I were a woman, I would say “Zabloudila,” hence the parenthetic “a”). I’m glad I discovered them, because while I was in the Czech Republic, I needed to use the word several times to elicit help from strangers, and it always worked. I advise anyone who is planning a trip to the Czech Republic: Do not forget the name of this band!
A couple of weeks ago we were lucky enough to see The Dead in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. I’ve never seen The Dead in Europe before, and I had no idea how popular they are here. I found it really inspiring to see at least 40,000 deadheads all gathered together in the same place. It was a unique vibe, unlike any Grateful Dead concert I’ve ever attended. Deadheads at Kutna Hora are a lot quieter, and more peaceful than American deadheads, but American deadheads definately have better drugs. I didn’t even catch a whiff of kind bud, and nobody offered to sell me doses in Kutna Hora, even so, seeing The Dead in Kutna Hora was an experience I will never forget.
Last week, I wrote about how the Greeks unlocked the key to music theory when Pythagoras discovered the Golden Mean. The Greeks elevated the study of music to an intellectual pursuit on par with geometry, science and philosophy, and this new attitude and knowledge about music spurred the development of precision crafted musical instruments, which, in turn, inspired the precision machines that powered the industrial revolution. Besides demanding better instruments and inspiring precision craftsmanship, this new, highly intellectual attitude towards music yielded many technological applications as well as well as producing a lot of mind-blowingly beautiful music.
The Romans also embraced the classical approach to education, and when a decadent Roman Empire turned Christian, in the 4th Century, the Catholic Church put the power of music to work for the Holy Roman Empire to maintain, and even expand the extent of their power by spreading this new religion all over the world. The Roman Catholic Church used music as a sort of psy-ops propaganda tool to win over hearts and minds, and to break down resistance to Roman rule.
Rome started sending missionaries armed with hymnals instead of Centurions with swords to their colonies abroad, but the Catholic Church burned folk instruments all over Europe in the Middle Ages, calling them tools of “the Devil’s music.” The church denounced folk music as profane and blasphemous and banned it from “The House of God,” but the Catholics built classical music into the architecture of the stone cathedrals they built for European peasants to pray in.
The Catholics built huge cisterns into the foundations of their cathedrals to power the enormous pipe organs they installed inside them, and then built soaring stone bell towers to house huge bell carillons high overhead. The bells woke everyone up, got them out of bed and brought them to church, where they heard choirs, accompanied by a pipe organ with banks of deep bass pipes resonating in optimally designed halls. This was the first time most Europeans ever heard a musical bass note so low and full that they could feel it in their chest. While Catholic Mass mesmerized the peasants, nuns busily taught their kids catchy little songs about Jesus. The Catholics put classical music to work as a tool of empire, and used it to subjugate people with other cultural traditions.
Of course, the Catholics used this music to reaffirm their own faith as well. I’m sure that hearing music with tight harmonies, pure tones and rhythmic discipline must have seemed absolutely heavenly, and miraculous. Honestly, it still seems that way to me. There’s just something about how music makes you feel, that encourages you to continue doing whatever it was that made you feel that way. That’s how musicians learn to play, but when someone presents music to you, in a way you do not understand, and in a form you can not replicate, music becomes a kind of magic that inspires awe.
Awe can be a powerful tool for an empire that seeks to express power abroad. You’ll recall that inspiring awe was an essential component of the US military’s recent offensive in Iraq, code named “Operation Shock and…” Despite the violence, clerical sexual depredation, and economic pillage, somehow, music always restored people’s faith in God, by inspiring awe.
The Roman Catholic Church demonstrated the true power of music, and it’s ability to inspire awe, as a tool for empire, and it serves them well to this day, but subsequent empires have not failed to learn from the Romans. Music had been weaponized. Music became political because music has power and anyone who wants power, needs music. That is the “gospel truth” as taught by the Holy Roman Empire.
By about 1600, medieval craftsmen had made great strides in the field of instrument building. They called their crowning achievement, the “piano-forte.” “Piano,” in musical parlance, meaning played quietly, and “forte” meaning played loudly. This room filling instrument had an elegant ivory keyboard, and employed a complex system of hammers and dampers to sound an enormous iron rack of tuned strings. It was the first keyboard instrument that allowed players to vary the volume of the note sounded by how forcefully they played. Today, we simply call it a “piano.”
It takes an empire to build a piano. While the instruments of our indigenous ancestors were likely built and played by the same hands, from materials on hand, no one could ever build a piano from materials on hand. One lifetime is not long enough to learn all of the skills necessary to build a piano from scratch. It takes skilled machinists, cabinetmakers, wood-workers, felt-makers, blacksmiths, iron workers and more to build a piano, not to mention ivory, exotic woods, metal and materials from all over the world. Today, most piano players have never even tuned a piano, let alone built one. The piano is a product of hierarchy and empire and you would be hard pressed to find a better ambassador for either.
The piano became the king of precision crafted classical musical instruments, but of course, only kings, and popes, could afford them. Most kings and popes really didn’t play the piano very well, so they hired people to play it for them, and to teach them and their kids to play. Johan Sebastian Bach got one of those jobs, and elegantly mapped out the complete melodic and harmonic potential of the twelve tone chromatic scale, on the piano. He’s been teaching the whole world how to make music ever since.
People recognize J S Bach as the “Father of Classical Music” but his music represents the culmination of hundreds of years of technology, mindset and discipline, that includes the piano. With more than a seven-octave range, the piano became the principle instrument of composers, who wrote arrangements for entire symphony orchestras, while sitting in front of it. We should not underestimate how much the piano shaped the golden age of classical music that followed.
The piano, despite it’s amazing ingenuity, has limits, like any instrument in the real world. The piano offers an impressive seven-octave range, but it cannot change pitch continuously, the way a guitar player can bend a note note up, or the way a violin player can add vibrato, for example. The piano can play loudly or quietly, and you can let the sound ring, or damp it off, but the piano only makes one sound. If you play violin, you can pluck the string, or you can bow it, to create two distinctly different sounds. Horn players use mutes to change the tone of their instruments, and organ players can often choose from a multitude of voices. Also, a piano cannot start a note quietly, and then make it louder, as a horn player might do, nor can the piano articulate words and syllables into a pitch the way a human singer can. Those are just a few musical limitations of the piano.
The piano makes many musical compromises in order to give the player the maximum flexibility for melody and harmony. Classical music is all about melody and harmony. Add in rhythm and dynamics, and you’ve described the complete palette of classical music. I bring this up to point out that in order to delve deeply into these four elements, the classical music tradition completely overlooked not only sounds and techniques, but whole ways of looking at and appreciating music. For example, overtone music, such as Tuvan throat singing sounds alien to us, because our classical tradition choked that whole approach to music out of western civilization.
Everything but melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics got squeezed out of classical music, as it ascended to it’s pinnacle with composers like Mozart and Beethoven, who composed their masterpieces at the piano. It was an age of empire, and these composers produced music for kings, emperors, and even God himself. Our classical music tradition strongly reflects this. That’s why classical music sounds so grand, reverent, and orderly, and why it is so very careful not to offend the ear.
Flash forward to the turn of the 20th Century at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Several new inventions greatly increase the reach and the power of classical music, but they also would eventually change the way we relate to music. Radio, the phonograph, and eventually the tape recorder revolutionized music even more than the piano.
Before long, even people who never learned to play an instrument, could experience the sound of a full orchestra in the comfort of their own home, thanks to the magic of radio. By the 1970s, electronic sound reproduction technology reached it’s zenith. If you had a decent stereo, most bands’ records probably sounded better in your living room than the same band did playing live at a concert hall. It no longer made sense, if you wanted music in your life, to learn to play an instrument. For the price of a single musical instrument, you could buy a whole sound reproduction system that would allow you to listen to studio polished performances by the world’s most renowned artists, right in your own living room, right out of the box, and with no practice.
By this time governments, churches, and corporations all started using music to express power and influence people’s behavior, and our modern technological media helped them do it. Where once, the only way you would hear music was if you made an instrument yourself, and learned to play it, by the 1970’s when the FM band opened up, anyone with a radio had their choice of music, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Suddenly, music was just there, everywhere, all the time, everywhere you went. Classical music had become an institution. Kids still learn to play an instrument and read music in school as part of their classical education, and charitable foundations continue to keep symphony orchestras playing in most major metropolitan areas, so long as they keep playing the old classics, but the playing field has changed. Disciplined performers and precision machines no longer impress us. We take them for granted. Not only that, we’ve heard it all before, and we no longer feel any connection to it.
We don’t know how any of it works anymore. We don’t know where it comes from, how it is made or why it works, just like all of the high-tech gadgets we surround ourselves with these days. The proliferation of artificially flawless, studio produced music has the same effect on our self esteem as seeing images of people with artificially flawless complexions and perfect smiles in the media. We no longer believe we are capable or worthy of a direct relationship with music, so mostly, we leave it to the professionals, and consume music passively, second-hand.
Meanwhile, the whole classical music game got stale. Composers got tired of grand, reverent, orderly and inoffensive and started looking for ways to make classical music more aggressive and challenging. Some sought to subvert the classical system of tonality, while others looked for ways to add new sounds to the repertoire, and still others looked for entirely new ways to approach music.
Some of these composers embraced this new sound reproduction and sound production technology and incorporated it in creative ways into their music. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Iannis Xenakis’s Diamorphosis, and saw the written score to it in an elementary school music class. Xenakis composed this piece on magnetic tape, from a variety of recorded and electronically generated sounds.
Karlheinz Stockhausen composed pieces full of weird electronic sounds that came at the audience from all directions with discreet multi-channel sound systems,
and John Cage used microphones and electronic transducers to amplify ordinary household vibrations into bizarre sounding compositions.
I love all of that weird music, by the way, and it still turns me on. That music is rebellious in a very intellectual kind of way. These composers all recognized just how finite the tradition of classical music really was, and they understood the oppressive nature of classical music, as only a classically trained musician would, so they went exploring, to see what else they could do with music. I still love that music because of that rebelliousness, and how earnestly revolutionary it all sounds, in that deeply intellectual, symbolic and inconsequential way that privileged people embrace radical ideas. Still, it spoke to me at an impressionable age and I still love it because of the nostalgia I have for it, and for what it was in it’s time.
Today, empires of all shapes and size compete for your attention with music, but music no longer wows the peasants as much as it once did. Marketers continue to use music to ambush us and invade our space, because they know how powerfully music can convey their message. As a result, we’ve become music resistant. Music has become a pervasive noise that we learn to tune out, and we resent catchy jingles that stick in our head. We get subjected to so much weaponized music these days, that we no longer trust music, and we no longer respect music. We assume that anyone who makes music these days, has an agenda, and serves an empire, or wants to build one.
That’s too bad, because we need music to build culture. Our culture has disconnected us from the musical process, in order to subject us more completely to its power to inspire awe and manipulate behavior. At the same time, music has died in our culture. Classical music has long since exhausted itself and folk music has succumbed to the lure of capitalism. When the music of your culture dies, your culture dies too. You might not notice it for a while, especially when there are so many great recordings of it to replay, but there’s no real future in our culture anymore.
Stockhausen, Cage and others saw it clearly decades ago. They saw that it was over, and because they knew it was over, they had no enthusiasm for musical convention. Instead, they cast aside everything they had been so painstakingly taught about music, since they were school-children and they went looking for whole different approach, starting from scratch. They weren’t afraid to offend the ear, they showed no reverence for tradition, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been able to use any of their music to sell anything. That’s what makes them some of the most important composers of the 20th Century.
This has been a very brief and very broad overview of the last 40,000 years of music in our culture. From this perspective, anything that’s happened since then is still today’s news, so I think this is a good place to end. I’ll tell you what I still find compelling about music next week.
Well here we are in the final week of 2017. As I look back on the year, I realize that I’ve made a lot of music, and watched almost no TV in 2017. I don’t regret it. In fact, I hereby resolve to do the same in 2018. However, I feel like I’ve done a really half-assed job of promoting the music I have created this year. I really need to step up to the plate on this because I have a lot more music in the pipeline for 2018. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and that you find some of my music interesting. You are welcome to listen to, and download, all of my music, for free, any time you like, at my music blog, www.electricearthmusic.wordpress.com, but allow me to present to you, dear reader, the gift of music this holiday season.
Not that long ago I told you about my new album, Vintage Startraveler , and the synthesizer I built from scratch, the GeoSafari Modular Analog Synthesizer. Since then, however, I’ve released two new videos featuring music from the album. These videos feature old footage that I found in The Prelinger Archive, a collection of movies and videos in the public domain. I turned the final cut on the album, Black Hole Energy Field, into the soundtrack to The Visitor, the story of an animated alien who gets frightened away by some Cold War era government propaganda. This alien originally starred in a weirdly religious driver safety film made by the Methodist Church, called Stop Driving Us Crazy.
Native Planet draws heavily from an old, sci-fi film titled Assignment Outer Space. The movie had terrible dialog, but exactly the kind of space footage I wanted. Intermittently, you’ll see shots of me, at the controls of the GMAS.
In addition to building synthesizers, I also enjoy creatively rewiring, or circuit-bending, electronic toys, and turning them into weird musical instruments. One particular toy, a Casio ML1 toy keyboard, has proven quite precocious. “ML” stands for “Magic Light.” This one-foot-long keyboard has a tiny two-octave keyboard, and red LEDs light up under each key when you press it.
While probing the electronic brain of this toy, I discovered several contact points that, when momentarily bridged, cause the ML1 to malfunction in such a way that it spontaneously composes its own original music. When manipulated in this way, the ML1 generates complex original musical themes that repeat, but change in subtle ways that evolve over time. The ML1 has it’s own aesthetic, a Merzbow meets Super Mario kind of vibe that takes some getting used to, but I find the ML1’s music quite interesting and compelling.
It was an honor to collaborate with the ML1 on the album we made together this year. I feel that Post-Apocalyptic Noise Fields for Active Listening barely scratched the surface of our musical potential, and I look forward to collaborating with the ML1 more in 2018. For now, here’s a video I made from the track, ML1 Quartet from our new album Post-ApocalypticNoise Fields for Active Listening. I titled the video “The Supreme Joy of Spontaneous Creation,” because of the short audio clip that starts the video. I created the video collage from a collection of TV commercials, a military training film and an anti-drug propaganda movie from the ’60s, all from the Prelinger Archive.
What’s ahead in 2018? You haven’t heard me play didgeridoo for a while, have you? Right now, I’m working on a new didgeridoo album that I’m really excited about. I don’t know what to call it, but here’s a couple of videos that’ll give you an idea of what’s ahead.
Thanks for reading and listening!
I don’t know why we worry so much about Big Tobacco getting into the marijuana industry when the industry has already sold out to Big Oil. When you consider all of the hash labs littered with thousands of empty butane canisters,
all of the lit-up greenhouses and the indoor grows,
the big generators,
the earth moving equipment,
the giant 4×4 vanity trucks
and the endless snorting, stench-spewing caravan of soil and water trucks crisscrossing our watersheds,
it’s no wonder all of the weed we grow around here stinks of diesel fuel. Truth be known, Humboldt weed is primarily a petroleum product, and the industry becomes more oil intensive every day.
The cannabis industry’s thirst for fossil fuel has only grown since coming out of the closet, at least judging by auditory evidence. I’ve never heard so much racket coming out of these hills as I have in the past year, and it’s not just my neighborhood. Yesterday, in town, I heard three different people, independently, complain about loud generators disturbing their peace and quiet in three separate watersheds.
In the Redway Post Office, I saw a flier posted by yet another angry forest dweller encouraging people who value their peace and quiet to to report their noisy neighbors to the CA Air Quality Management Board. The flier also reminds people of the health risks associated with noise pollution, like tinnitus, ear damage and hearing loss. I doubt the bureaucrats at CAAQMB want any more than to collect a fee from the offenders, but why not make them pay any way you can.
Now that the marijuana industry has come out in the open, apparently, so has the greed. The sun just can’t shine bright or long enough to satisfy our dope yuppies anymore, so they flood the forest with noise pollution and air pollution so they can make light pollution. Besides annoying neighbors, stressing wildlife, degrading the environment and creating a public health threat, every year, a few of these generators blow up and start forest fires. Dope yuppies don’t care, unless it’s their house that burns.
Dope yuppies don’t care about anyone but themselves and their own greedy scheme to get rich off of prohibition. All Summer, their soil and water trucks pounded the county roads out in the hills, to rubble, in yet another sacrifice to their insatiable greed. Humboldt’s marijuana industry destroys roads because, every year, all new “farmland” has to be trucked in, as well as a substantial portion of the water needed to grow the crop. Thanks to prohibition, and the massive taxpayer subsidies that go along with it, Humboldt’s dope yuppies make so much money from marijuana that they still turn a profit despite their disgracefully wasteful farming practices.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Estelle Fennell has the nerve to remind us that homeless people and working single mothers who shop in town, will pay to fix those roads, so that dope yuppies can continue to have Amazon deliver everything they need, right to their door, avoiding the Measure Z sales tax completely, and effectively externalizing yet another business expense to the poorest taxpayers. Way to go Estelle! That’s how you steal from the poor and give to the rich, and that’s why the dope yuppies love her.
Yes the weed around here depends heavily on Big Oil, but it’s not just a matter of contamination, I believe there’s also an element of imitation. I think that cannabis itself responds to our obsession with fossil fuels. Think about it. We know that cannabis responds to its environment. When hippie gardeners grew marijuana by hand, it smelled like fruit and sage, because hippie gardeners love fruit and burn sage,
but now, the people who grow pot around here love their big trucks and their quads and their generators. The weed can smell the trucks, and the generators, and all of the exhaust fumes, and the weed thinks we like those smells, so the weed expresses those aromas in its attempt to please us. That’s why so much of the pot around here smells like diesel fuel. How apropos!
Cannabis can be a lot of things, but right now cannabis thinks we want a stupefying anesthetic that stinks like diesel fuel, and she is doing her level best to satisfy us. How long do you think it will be before cannabis realizes that we don’t really care about anything but money, and starts to smell like that? Unfortunately, marijuana already smells like money to too many people. That’s the problem.