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The Electric Harpsichord

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?

I 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?

The 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?

My 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.

What impact did your mother being a jazz musician have on you?

My 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.

What was the first composition and what process did you use?

I 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?

The 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.

Moving in to the 1970’s you became very interested in working with the Tambura. What attracted you to that? 

As I 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.)

What was Terry Riley’s music studio set up like in the early 1970’s?

You 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?

I've 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?

This 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?

To 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 to?

Nothing.

What are you working on at the moment?

Basically, 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.

www.dieschachtel.com

 

 

 





Comments

sharon Wales
2010-12-20 22:13:22
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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