SIMON DUFF: Known to the very few, The Electric
Harpsichord composed by Catherine Christer Hennix, is possibly the obscure
masterpiece of the days of early American minimalism. Recorded live in 1976
after many years of study under the guidance of Pandit Pran Nath and LaMonte
Young, it has finally found the perfect home in the Die Schachtel ART
catalogue: a lavishly produced and innovative silver/black cardboard book+CD
edition, that gives the work the space and merit it deserves as a unique work
of art, complete with two poems by LaMonte Young especially written for this
edition, and an extensive essay by Henry Flynt. An improvisation performed on
Just Intonation tuned keyboards put through time lag accumulators similar to
those used by Terry Riley, Hennix has produced one of the most remarkable
pieces of music to emerge from the La Monte Young school of minimalism. I interviewed Catherine Christer Hennix in December 2010.
“The whole world can be
understood as just one single vibration.” You said this in a recent interview.
Will you explain what you mean by this?
mainly intended an allusion to modern cosmology which regards the universe as a
collection of oscillations. At the lower end of this wave spectrum is the
Hubble frequency presently at about 3 x 10-18 Hz with a wave length
the diameter of the entire universe. And at the upper end there is a cut-off
frequency at about 1044 Hz (also known as the “Planck frequency”)
the wave length of which is limited by the Uncertainty Principle. Between these
two extremes there is a discontinuous spectrum with zillions of frequencies of
which we only know a fraction. However they all compose as a single composite
wave form which may be considered as the form of the universe as such. A tiny
subset of this giant 62- fold composite wave form is within hearing range and
will be something we can listen to in the future. I call this abstraction The
Hilbert Space Shruti Box when I draw on these frequencies as they are selected
for my compositions.
Will you tell me about “The
Electric Harpsichord.” How did you
approach the writing for that piece? What instrument did you use and how was
the work recorded?
score for The Electric Harpsichord is a collection of intervals from a system
of just intonation of North-Indian origin. This collection of intervals is
tuned to a sine wave drone (to which most of my compositions during this period
were tuned) and delivered by a three-manual touch-sensitive Yamaha keyboard
over an elaborate speaker system which interacted with a tape-delay feed-back
system. It was recorded live at a Dream Music Festival that I presented at
Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1976.
What is your background in
maths? How does maths inspire your music?
main interests in mathematics are proof theory and theoretical computer science
although I'm also interested in theoretical physics. I recall that the old
quadrivium included the study of music together with physics and astronomy, the
idea being that that the study of acoustical vibrations not only informs
physics and astronomy but, equally, is informed by the latter. It is a cultural
artifact which split music from the sciences, a process which was initiated by
the Reformation. Mathematics provides a language as well as a notation for the
processes which interest me as a composer, computer music being a case in point
since it is all about computations and proofs of correctness of the programs at
issue. Historically, however, only rudimentary forms of mathematics have
informed all great music in the past and up to the present. There may be a
future where advanced mathematics can play a decisive role in designs of sound
wave forms but presently no electronic music studio or AI Lab is equipped for
that future. This is not very inspiring.
impact did your mother being a jazz musician have on you?
late mother was not a jazz musician but a composer of jazz ballads, among her
crafts. Her compositions were played by many prominent jazz musicians from the
USA and they and others were frequent guests in her house. This provided a very
inspiring environment for me to grow up in where I had a trap-set and a
Steinway Grand to practice on every day. I guess one can say that her impact on
my musicianship was “formative” in a fundamental but intangible way.
was the first composition and what process did you use?
never kept track of my compositions (with some exceptions) : this holds, in
particular, for my early work. I recall having published a graphic score model
Identitaten II (Identities II) back in 1969.
In 1969 you visited Le Monte
Young in New York. Does that meeting still inform how you work today?
short answer is: Of course. Perhaps you are not familiar with my contributions
to his work which include both realization of electronic music and theory of
tuning. By that I mean I didn't just “visit” him in 1969 but we met regularly
to work on his compositions or his theories and their formalization or he spent
the time teaching me things I didn't know. Sometimes a meeting could last for
many days. In 1970 he visited me in Stockholm for over a month and had the
occasion to daily give me my first instructions in Classical Indian Vocal Music
including instructions in tambura accompaniment. In addition, LaMonte soon
introduced me to unusually talented people like Henry Flynt and Dennis Johnson
and the following year Pandit Pran Nath all of whom still remain important to
my mind. I defer the long answer to another occasion.
in to the 1970’s you became very interested in working with the Tambura. What
attracted you to that?
just mentioned La Monte Young introduced me to the late Pandit Pran Nath in
1970 when I first was introduced to his very special (custom designed) tamburas
and his techniques of tuning and playing them. Since this instrument is
intended to produce sustained tones in just intonation it is conceptually very
close to LaMonte's approach to experimental music. In fact, since the early
'70s I have insisted on the tambura
also as a solo instrument in its own right. It is the most attractive
instrument that I have ever played. It is without question the main source of
my inspiration for composing music or experimenting with sound and it has a
permanent place in the Hilbert Space Shruti Box, already mentioned. (This was
the short answer.)
was Terry Riley’s music studio set up like in the early 1970’s?
are asking me to visually remember Terry's former studio in San Francisco.
That's almost 40 years ago. Tall order! As I recall, he only kept acoustical
Indian instruments since his sole focus was on studying raga-s (his classes at
Mill's taught only raga-s throughout the '70s).
What inspired you to become a
disciple of Pran Nath? How has he influenced you through your life and work?
already partially answered this question, above. I may add that LaMonte
insisted on that I should strive for becoming a disciple. Before 1973 I had
received all my lessons from LaMonte. The very practice of raga-s requires a restructuring of
one's musical thinking and finding the mental space where this process can
mature by its own will. This requirement is in conflict with present social
structures which are inadequate to support it. This must presently be
compensated for by personal
efforts which sometimes become taxing. My point is that this is an open-ended
process which is not likely to come to rest but remains in constant
development. It is inevitable that this process has a strong influence on the life
of whomever lives it.
Will you tell me a bit about
your life in the 1990’s. In particular will you tell me about “The Hilbert
Space Shuti Box” treatise?
question does not have a short answer. Briefly, the Hilbert Space Shruti Box is
a Hilbert Space used in quantum physics to represent quantum states as
frequencies and about which I've written a short essay but which is not yet
ready for publication. However, I wish to stress that this writing in no way is
intended as a “treatise” but is quite “elementary”.
Today, you live in Berlin. How
do you like living there and will you tell me about your group The Chorasan
Time Chant Miracle?
take the last item first, and to clarify, you are probably referring to my just
intonation ensemble which I call The Choras(s)an Time-Court Miracle (which
follows my previous ensembles Hilbert Hotel, The Deontic Miracle a.o.). We
perform my recent modal composition Al-Dhikr al-Salam which is situated in the
intersection of raga-s, makam and blues and is written for voice, brass,
computer and live electronics with texts chosen from the Holy Koran. My move to
Berlin was occasioned by its excellent musicians some of whom now make up the
core of the ensemble. I live in a 120 years old house surrounded by a courtyard
which keeps the street noise out. It affords long-range opportunities for
intensive sound experiments and uninterrupted listening without leaving the
house for days or weeks. This is a very ideal situation for a composer like me.
It remains for the City of Berlin to become the first World City to support the
remains of High Modernity without diluting it with pre- or post-modern works –
as in New York or Paris. Then something may happen and I might be given the
occasion to venture out of my house. As it presently is positioned Berlin
appears directionless in its cultural ambitions and without a radical
intervention risks becoming as bland as all other European metropolitan zones.
Today looking at contemporary
art and contemporary music and poetry what inspires you and what do you listen
are you working on at the moment?
the answer is the same as Q11. I might add that Marvin Minsky recently has
persuaded me to pursue an internet home-connection so that we can maintain a
dialog independently of surface mail or telephone. Since I favor the latter I
remain of two-minds as to the intensity of my search for a provider.
MORE BLOGS BY THIS AUTHOR
|This is the best interview I have read this year. Congratulations to Die Schachtel for such a lovely book and CD. Let 2011 be the year of music and maths. Rave on.
sharon wales, art teacher|
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