[Ed Note: The following essay was adapted from a talk given on October 17th, 2013 at Eyebeam (NYC), sponsored by ((audience)). First suggests clicking on the link below before reading the essay for an audio accompaniment to his words. —FJO]
I can’t remember everything about my formative teenage years, but I do recall clearly the day I came up with my holy immutable worldview. I was in the woods. I lived across the street from Pennypack Park in Northeast Philadelphia. It was called a park, but take it from me, it was the woods. You couldn’t go on picnics or play softball in there. You could only disappear. A hundred feet from my front door and you were gone. I was very lucky.
Anyway, I was in the woods…smoking a joint…when it hit me. There were only three lenses through which to view the world. It was a triangle. One side was science, one was art, the third was religion. The way I saw it, scientists wanted to rationally explain and control all natural phenomena without asking complicating permissions from an invisible Eye in the Sky. They saw the cosmic brew as simply a bunch of solvable formulas and equations with either us, or no one, in charge.
Religious people gave all glory to God or whatever, and were satisfied to live in mystery. They preferred the mystery. They wanted to be taken care of. Or punished if they didn’t obey the rules. A contract.
Artists wanted to have it both ways. They liked the mystery, but wanted to lord over it as well. They wanted to make the rules, to write the contract and be the only ones to sign it. For artists, belief in a Supreme Being was generally trumped by self-absorption, and science existed largely to help create better artistic tools. I didn’t have the discipline, or possibly the brains, to be a scientist, though I loved the trappings of science: lights and knobs and dials and machines and beakers with strange bubbling liquids pouring out.
Religion…well, that didn’t seem like that much fun at all. Transcendent devotion seemed cool, but it was more like something you did when you were through playing around. A religious kid just makes no sense. You’d just have to be aping some adult’s inclinations.
But art…that seemed like the best of all worlds. The pomposity without the responsibility to get things correct or to live correctly. It was pure opinion from what I could see. You had to be convincing, maybe even mesmerizing, but you could shape the game any way you saw it. You could create beauty and you could shake things up. The only limit was the breadth of your ideas and maybe the tools at your disposal. Very romantic. I wanted to be an artist. An artist in sound.
Even as a young boy I never went in much for musical entertainment. My favorite band during the British invasion of the mid-’60s was a band called the Yardbirds. Their lead guitarist, Jeff Beck, was my hero. The Yardbirds were the least entertaining band of the class of 1964-65. Their singer had no charisma and their claim to fame—they did, in fact, have a bunch of hit records—was the exotic sounds they invented. They weren’t ugly dudes. Hell, man for man, they were probably better looking than the Stones. But they were in it for something else. Or maybe they were only in it for the girls, but they didn’t know any better. Makes sense. Musicians probably always think that new musical ideas are sexy. No matter. At any rate, I started playing guitar when I saw the Beatles, but when I heard the Yardbirds, I wanted to be a musician.
Now, the British have a lovely term for people like the Yardbirds: they call them “musos.” I first heard this term during the punk era of the late ‘70s when it was used with great derision underscored by a dismissive sneer. It meant that a player or band placed a way overripe value on traditional skills and musical knowledge. Musos practiced their instruments. The most offensive musos might even be able to read music, but it was bad enough to care too much about being in tune, or to use chords beyond basic barre or power chords. You had to be very careful about what you revealed if you knew more than these things during the punk era. You even had to be careful about letting people know who you listened to. The original bass player for the Sex Pistols got kicked out for being too competent and publicly admitting he liked the Beatles. He was replaced by someone more authentic—someone who couldn’t play bass at all.
I loved punk rock. It was an incredible high point in pop music. But I reckon I was also concerned with being in tune. It was a confusing time. Punk was an attempt to return things back to something more than bloated entertainment. In that spirit, my band at the time, Notekillers, thought we’d try taking things a half-step further by having no front person/singer. We were all-instrumental and wanted it to be all about sound, sensation, and psychosis. We wanted there to be nothing entertaining about us at all. No message. This confused a lot of people, especially the punks.
The Notekillers live in 1977, photo courtesy David First.
I’ve tried to keep to that agenda in the years since. But then a couple of years ago I had a revelation, possibly equal to my teenage science/art/religion triangle. I kept having this vision of the album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. And then it hit me. No matter how profound, how powerful, how skilled, sophisticated, sensitive, or shocking our work as artists might be, we are all merely Johnny Cash entertaining the inmates at Earthling Prison. All art is nothing more than entertainment.
The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: entertainment.
Pollock’s drips: entertainment.
Beethoven’s 9th: entertainment.
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: entertainment.
Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, Waiting for Godot: all entertainment.
It’s all something to keep people occupied. To distract, engage, and stimulate their senses in order to make them feel something, but not too much. Happiness, sadness, empathy, rage, whatever.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. Of course, art enhances people’s lives. When Johnny Cash comes to play for us, it’s a brighter day. But that’s it at best. He leaves and we’re still here. If it were any different, then the world would be a very different place. Walking into that building in Vatican City would be transformative forever for every person doing so. It would be literally like sticking your finger in an electrical socket. Hearing “Ode to Joy” would be like eating a poisonous mushroom. Or a magic one. Listening to A Love Supreme would transport one to another physical dimension or another galaxy at the very least. Not just if one were open to it; it would be involuntary. Like gravity. Or getting hit by lightning.
People have been staring at paintings and taking in concerts, dance recitals, and poetry readings for hundreds of years, and what’s changed? The world is as bad off as ever—maybe worse. We’re destroying the planet. We still distrust and hate each other over the stupidest things. And if there has been even the slightest bit of social progress or spiritual growth, it isn’t because of art. I’m not sure those things are even very high on most artists’ priority lists. And if they aren’t, then the resulting work is all just screwing around, putting the icing on a pretty bitter cake. Entertainment.
If you don’t want to hear it from me, here’s a quote I recently found from one of the most unassailable artistic strivers of the 20th century, John Coltrane:
I want to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start immediately to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he’ll be cured. When he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d get all the money he needed. But what these pieces are, and what is the road to attain the knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every music.
I don’t think he didn’t mean it.
Now, the Pythagoreans had the right idea. It appears that they made no hard and fast distinction among the disciplines of mathematics, music, and medicine. They used math to create their musical scales, then chose certain scales for executing music to heal specific ailments. Was it all gullible placebo? Wishful conceit? Poetic metaphor? We tend to place the ancients in two categories: ignorant but charming superstitionists who thought the Earth rode on the back of a giant turtle, or, conversely, people who ate, breathed, and lived in an environment more in tune with the codes of the universe and who could perform feats of magic well beyond our ken.
Not to be judgmental, but there seems to be plenty of evidence that the former walk among us, more or less, still today. And I believe that the latter may as well. And I believe that artists, more so than scientists or the religious, carry the seeds of miracle works inside them. And I believe we are seriously underperforming.
There’s a wonderful new book by Douglas Kahn called Earth Sound Earth Signal. It is a wealth of historical anecdotes and information on how scientists and inventors and tinkerers of the 19th and 20th centuries spent many dreamy, visionary moments lost in off-hour aesthetic reverie, immersed in what might be called the unexpected byproducts of their research. These often led, in turn, to further technological advancements.
The artists portrayed in the book benefitted greatly as well through both direct collaborations with scientists and the general availability of new tools and data types that scientific research brought about. They often subverted the original purpose of these tools to develop marvelous new palettes for their creative endeavors. And they opened doors to fantastic ways of relating to and embracing our surroundings and internal workings that served as a running poetic commentary on the concurrent scientific breakthroughs.
Those artists who emerged in the ‘60s & ‘70s, especially—the Earth artists and the Body artists and the Street artists—did much heavy lifting to break through the fourth wall artifices, leading us out of the concert halls, theaters, and galleries to a more authentic experience of the ways things are. Many of them took great risks with their careers, and even their lives, attempting to realize visions beyond the polite aesthetic boundaries they inherited. Some began insanely ambitious projects that are still in the act of becoming all these years later. Others left us without ever seeing those ambitions completed.
If one adds in their contemporaries—the free jazz scorchers (including John Coltrane) and the psychedelic travelers, both of whom, in their own ways, tested the limits of what the body can take and what society can handle—a picture emerges of an era in which bravery and edge-walking were palpable, imperative components of creation. Hell, if we’re talking about standing up to societal norms, I can easily throw the Sex Pistols in there as well. Those guys had the whole British Empire boring down on them and were attacked by knife-wielding thugs and beaten up on more than one occasion.
Yeah, sure, you can chalk this perspective up to the cranky idealism of someone who lived through it, but seriously, what has happened since then? All I’ve seen in all the arts since maybe a couple years into the ‘80s is a bunch of folding back: re-examination, recombining, re-creation, refinement—all the “re-” words. Who has gone further? Who has truly challenged society, challenged the role of the artist, and risked what might come back at them in return? I think I’ve been paying attention! Have all of those people been deemed foolish and naive? Did we learn from their mistakes that it’s better not to tilt the game, to just worry about the state of our careers and making interesting work? Or, in fact, were they gods possessing unattainable superpowers whom we can only worship and imitate poorly from a stale distance? In either case, has the jig been up for a long time? If not, how do we, and, more likely, considering I’m no kid any longer, how can subsequent generations fulfill the ambitions the giants, on whose shoulders they stand, whispered of and hinted at?
There are some tantalizing passages in Kahn’s book where, particularly in earlier eras, the researcher under discussion isn’t afraid to evoke the notion of a higher power. If you have a problem with that construction, let’s just maybe call it a stronger power. Most of their technological breakthroughs were made through the attempt to harness stronger powers. And higher power, as with voltages, is stronger, right?
Which brings me back to the third side of that triangle. The side that has never stopped tapping me on the shoulder, whatever twists and turns my musical life has taken. I know religion is a troubling word. And as I invoke it these days, I don’t mean the calcified and corrupted modern day rules and regulations used to control the hoi polloi. And I’m certainly not talking about a grey-bearded Daddy anthropomorphically judging us from his throne in the clouds. But I don’t want to water things down here by switching that word out for something spongier like “spirituality” or some such.
What I mean by religion is simply the willingness to accept the possibility that there is a consciousness exponentially beyond ours. That accidents may just be something else taking control of the wheel. That we—at least in our present state—are not the be-all and end-all of the evolutionary process. I consider the idea that we are to be the height of arrogance and shortsightedness. What do ants think of us? We are, no doubt, an unfathomable force of nature to them. Why is it not possible that we are ants in relationship to something else? Just because it may be a classic acid-tripper’s meme doesn’t make it untrue.
We know the traditional advantage science has had over religion in mapping our world: tangible, demonstrable, repeatable proof. And it would seem that science is getting closer all the time to proving the existence of what might be called alternative realities. But I think it’s the old “half the distance to the wall” paradox, and it’d be a mistake to derisively dismiss out of hand the possibility that religion has something on science in these matters. That proof can also be a dead end. It’s performing an autopsy on a beautiful idea. Taking apart a promise to see what makes it tick. I believe there is a power in never totally knowing, but striving to perfect an openhearted feeling instead. Letting something live to be a real mystery and having a relationship with it built on a trusting handshake—no contract necessary.
As much as there is to learn from reading Hindemith and Cowell and Cage and Stockhausen and Partch and Helmholtz and various books on acoustics, there is a potentially equal influence and deepening of possibilities gained through reading books by another Khan—the philosopher and musician Inayat Khan, as well as Dane Rudhyar, Paramahansa Yogananda, Ernest McClain, Jocelyn Godwin, and others who wrote about something beyond our measurable, phenomenological world. That there is a veil that could be, that needs to be pierced. And that it can be done through diligent, artful means.*
The Video Component for Operation:Kracpot
Maybe it’s time to mention that I, too, have a scientist/artist collaboration story. In my case, it came about in 2002 when looking into brainwave information for an installation I was creating and I came across, for the first time, mentions of the Schumann resonances. Schumann resonances are quasi-standing waves that occur in the Earth’s ionosphere as a result of lightning constantly striking the globe and causing it to ring like a giant bell. I was entranced by this idea; what musician wouldn’t be? And I proceeded to dive into the internet’s vast trove of links, which were pretty much equally divided between New Age harbingers and scientific researchers. One name that came up on just about every research site was Davis Sentman.
Sentman, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska, was by all accounts on these sites the world’s leading authority on Schumann resonances and related atmospheric phenomena. So, long story short, I searched out his website where, along with a wealth of great info, he cheerfully offered to answer questions. So I wrote and brazenly asked, among other things, where I could find the data and whether there was a way to receive it in real time. He answered all my questions, and by the following day, he had created an application that allowed me to stream said data over the internet and into the Max patch I had already been working on. For the next couple of years, he and I collaborated on performances for which I would give him the time coordinates and he would run the app, allowing me to jam with the Earth.
Sensors, sensor box, and the instrument trailer at the Gakona, Alaska site where the Operation:Kracpot data was being measured and sent.
This project, which I called Operation:Kracpot, was the first time I allowed overt mystical implications to enter into my work. Though, as you can tell by the name, I was still sort of hedging my bet. There was definitely inspiration of a sort to be found in the more fanciful ideas on the New Age sites, that the Schumann resonance fundamental frequency, in particular, was a type of Mother Earth tone, that human consciousness development could be directly linked to this frequency, and that we had all better, if we knew what was good for us, get back in touch with it. There were also more apocalyptic connotations attached to it, that Sentman convincingly poked holes in. The one indisputable fact was that this fundamental frequency, which tended to hover somewhere around +/- 8 Hz, was nestled nicely inside the alpha brainwave range—a restful, yet alert state that was sought by meditators everywhere. This was something even science couldn’t deny.
Beyond that, by far the most important tool Sentman shared with me was a formula for calculating spherical harmonics that hewed very closely to the Schumann resonance relationships. This formula was a game changer as it freed me to create a complete alternative soundworld for accompanying Sentman’s data that consisted of a wider and denser range of frequencies than the Schumann resonances, a spherical overtone series that allowed me to construct more complex waveforms, tempo schemes, amplitude and frequency modulations, and various methods for transposition of materials that still retained the unique sonic character of the Schumann resonances.
David First’s MaxMSP patch for Operation:Kracpot
All in all, Op:Krac was great fun and I’d hoped to keep an ensemble of players I’d assembled together long enough to develop our own transcendental tribal rituals. But, at some point, Sentman’s facilities got shut down for repairs and he moved to New Mexico to study other things, including sprites. And I carried on by myself using stored data as well as the formula he’d shown me.
Sadly, Davis Sentman died suddenly a couple of years ago, right after he retired. He was an amazing person, definitely the biggest influence on my life in the last ten years and, along with my electrical engineer dad, one of the two most influential non-musicians for me ever. He would’ve loved Douglas Kahn’s book.
Anyway, I’ve continued to use these sounds, sometimes in standard artistic settings, including one memorable night at the original Silent Barn in Bushwick when my set occurred during a lightning storm one could watch out a huge window off to the side of the stage. But as of about two and a half years ago, I’ve reserved these materials to be used only as a part of another collaboration, this time at an acupuncture center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with acupuncturist Isobeau Trybula.
Actually, acupuncture might be the perfect bridging metaphor for what I’m trying to get at here. Nobody can say for sure—in a strictly scientific manner—how it works, and despite what I’ve said so far, I’m as big a skeptic as anyone. But damn if I don’t walk out of that place after a treatment feeling relief from whatever I went in with. It’s working on a subtler level than we can nail down and yet, more and more it has achieved mainstream acceptance in the medical community. This is what we need more of in our society: openness to the unexplainable.
Now, when someone asks me whether acupuncture works, to me that’s like asking whether country music is any good. And my answer is, it really depends. A lot of it does nothing for me. But Johnny Cash—he’s awesome. And it’s the same with acupuncture. Like most things, you need to find the real-deal practitioners, but when you do, it’s something else.
During our monthly sessions, Trybula typically offers only two different treatment options in order to best set up a common energy loop flowing through the six people that take part in each session. Also, unlike the individual treatments she offers, everyone starts at the same time. Including me. We’re all in it together. And in no way do I play the part of entertaining accompanist. I am not there to create an atmosphere, to set a mood, to perfume the air. I am there to reinforce, to resonate as best I can with Trybula’s treatment. A pair of stereo speakers are set up in two separate rooms with three people in each room, and I am outside the rooms with my equipment, paying very close attention. As I tell my students, we musicians are like pilots of a plane. We must take the same journey as the passengers; if we’re not off the ground, then they won’t be either. But we have the added responsibility of keeping the plane aloft, on course, and seeing that it arrives at its proper destination safely. So, we must learn to be totally functional within a membrane of disorientation. And nowhere is this more the case than in my acupuncture performances.
Two patients receiving acupuncture treatments from Isobeau Trybula along with music by David First. Photo courtesy David First.
Yes, I know, performance is another sticky word. I didn’t really know what to call my role in these things at first. It’s hardly show biz in there. But then I remembered that plate-spinners and rock singers are not the only performers—surgeons call what they do “performing an operation.” So I went with performance.
During the sessions, I build up complex combinations of beating tones in the stereo field, from extremely fine pitch shifts to strong, fairly rapid pulsations. Unlike binaural beating practitioners who aim for the brain through headphones and a single pair of detuned frequencies, I want this to be a full-range, full body experience. And though I experimented early on with a variety of sonic materials, I soon settled on the spherical harmonics. Beyond any New Age virtues they may possess, the thing I like best about them is that their sound has no associative musical correlations. It is devoid of memories or sentiment and you will not find yourself singing your favorite melodies along with them. They are just alien enough to repel cultural attachments and therefore retain a certain experiential purity as physical vibrations only. This is key, as it is most important that one not be left hanging trapped on more superficial levels.
This last part is especially relevant, I believe, when the patient is a musician. Musicians are the ones most susceptible to associative sounds and the goal is to disentangle them from their work during a session. Colleagues that have come in have indicated that, indeed, this approach does allow them to let go more readily.
But, as much as I love when my musical friends in attendance have a positive experience, what’s really gratifying is hearing from people on the other side of the aisle—regular patients of the clinic and acupuncturists themselves who say that something extra special happens during these collaborations between Trybula and myself—that a uniquely palpable space is created where deeply rooted stresses are reached and released. As a result of this feedback, I’ve begun to accept the complicated notion that I am contributing to a physically, and possibly even more profound, healing circuitry. And I am leaning into it more and more all the time.
With that in mind, I suggest that there is one frontier left. And it’s based solely on intention. Not the squishy New Age white bread intention of calming, peaceful relaxation, and selfish self-acceptance, but the rough, rocky intention of what the alchemists called transmutation and universal acceptance.
I say it’s time to attempt fulfilling our mandate as artists here on Earth. I say we work on finding or developing an Underground Railroad that will help people escape, through metaphysical tunnels we construct, this mundane plane of existence. You want to be a defiant member of society? Try defying the laws of nature. Talk about a police state! Clawing for grants and gigs and stature is just playing into the trap. The smug life didn’t choose you. It’s the lowest level. Lower than the lowest level because we are totally misusing our gifts. We are the tricksters, the wizards, the true magicians. And the would-be shamans and healers.
What’s the first step? Well, for starters, let’s decommission our obsession with being geniuses. Three-fourths of the people reading this are geniuses. Who in our world is not a genius? Such a diluted, entry-level position. Such resting on wilted laurels of cleverness. We all took the big leap into pursuing a career in the arts because we were crowned geniuses back wherever we came from. And now it’s the classic scenario: we’re the former high school football stars grateful to be riding the bench in the big leagues.
I’m not saying that we have to completely give up doing artness as usual—everybody needs a hobby. But, please, can we stop being so coy? Can we stop looking the other way and acknowledge the Ganesh in the middle of the room? Stop being distracted by the shiny plastic baubles being dangled in front of our eyes and start living up to our responsibilities, our duties, and change things for real?
There is a huge difference between making work inspired by the Divine, making work that reminds one of the Divine, and actually manifesting the Divine. We don’t need faint echoes or foggy mirrors. We need the direct current. We need all lines of communication opened between us and the Universe. We need to break out of here and bring as many along with us as possible. We need to find the resonant frequencies that will crack the walls. The melodies that will pick the locks. The colors and shapes and words and actions that will melt down the barriers and transduce our molecules and take us to the other side.
I’m here. If you’re sick of sad ego-inflating, self-aggrandizing displays of so-called virtuosity and ingenuity and new, improved methods for getting us nowhere but draining circles of sameness and mediocrity, let’s talk and try things. Maybe we can figure some stuff out.
David First lives, teaches, and works on music in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Current projects include his hypno-acoustic rhythm & drone a/v ensemble, The Western Enisphere, psychedelic noise rock and roll band, Notekillers, and SWATi, a monthly collaboration with acupuncturist, Isobeau Trybula. He curates cooperative collisions under the rubric of New Party Systems
and is proprietor of Dave’s Waves—a Sonic Restaurant, a semi-ephemeral establishment that he hopes you will visit next time it is passing through.