Drones for peace
Catherine Christer Hennix studied with La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath, which explains her interest in drones. Her music rejects the 12-step octave in favour of what we westerners would call microtonality. Her new album, Live at ISSUE Project Room, released under the name of the ensemble she calls Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage, is the most emotionally exhilarating and cathartic long-form piece of music I’ve heard in ages.
Born in Stockholm in 1948 of Swedish and American parents, CCH studied contemporary western classical before meeting Young and Pandit Pran Nath in 1970 at the Foundation Maeght gallery in St Paul-de-Vence, during the famous music festival in which Albert Ayler also took part. That encounter changed her approach, which was also affected by studies of the medieval music of Japan (gagaku) and Europe.
Her most famous work is probably The Electric Harpsichord, a 25-minute piece recorded at a festival of modern music in Stockholm in 1976, on which she is the only performer, playing a keyboard and a sine wave generator. Static but enveloping, it sounds like Nico’s harmonium processed through a machine introducing the sonorities of bells, gongs and finger cymbals, with a gentle undertow of cello-like sounds. It was reissued by Die Schachtel in 2010, in a special edition including several haiku-like poems by Young and an essay by CCH’s friend Henry Flynt (the dedicatee, back in the mid-’60s, of Young’s composition X for Henry Flynt, which John Cale seized upon during his time at Goldsmiths College).
The other albums of which I’m aware are Central Palace Music From 100 Subjects for H, in which Hennix meets Peter Hennix (renaissance oboe) and Hans Isgren (sheng), and Chora(s)san Time Court Mirage’s Live at the Grimm Museum Vol 1, recorded by a five-piece ensemble in Berlin in 2011. Both are released on the Important label, the latter in collaboration with the Dutch festival Sonic Acts.
Live at ISSUE Project Room, also on Important, is a different kettle of fish altogether, a much more extensive exploration of resources. The musicians involved at this Brooklyn concert in 2014 were Hennix, Imam Ahmet Musin Tüzer and Amirtha Kidambi (voices), Amir Elsaffar and Paul Schwingenschlögl (trumpets), Hilary Jeffrey (trombone), Elene Kakaliagou (French horn), Robin Hayward (microtonal tuba) and Stefan Tiedje and Marcus Pal (computers and live electronics).
The single 80-minute piece, which is titled “Blues Alif Lam Mim in the Mode of Rag Infinity / Rag Cosmosis”, begins conventionally enough with tambura-like drones (presumably produced by electronic means) setting the scene for the introduction of elegant vocal ululations. Thereafter the music evolves in long, slow waves, its textures gradually thickening and then being pared away, the brass chorale and electronics coming and going beneath the voices: sometimes delicate and reticent, sometimes reaching a mindquaking intensity. This is a different kind of wall of sound, one on which an ever-changing variety of colours and images can be projected.
The listener might be occasionally made aware of the use of an unfamiliar tonality, but it is never remotely disconcerting. I have no idea of the belief system from which this music originates, but I do know that it stirs and nourishes something in my spirit. In its richness, in its patience, in its emotional generosity, a piece which seems to come from another world ends up feeling like the most natural sound imaginable.