Sometimes all it takes to get the mental wheels spinning along new grooves is listening to a good mix. This was most definitely the case when I tuned into a three hour special of the radio show Do or DIY from Vicki Bennett aka People Like Us on WFMU this past Valentines Day. Her mixture of “pop and avant-garde side by side, sometimes on top of one another” has been a mainstay of my radio listening habits since somewhere between 2007 and 2009 by my best guestimation, though her archives for that particular aspect of her creative work go all the way back to 2003. There are hours and hours of great music there. Her shows always make me laugh and smile, and its refreshing to have humorous music on the air.
The episode in question was, “This Is Bardcore This Is Barcode This is the Pooless Flute.” The Pooless Flute bit is an in joke that goes back to what she called “pooey flute” –all the shitty cover songs done terribly by people on YouTube on purpose, though technically, I suppose some of it is recorder music. But who is keeping track? This episode was unfortunately pooless, but it did have a few recurring motifs over the course of its very quick three hours. The first was from the bardcore microgenre. A microgenre might as well be called a meme, as Bennett herself put it that way. Often these microgenres function just as much as meme, with artists taking on a certain aesthetic with the use of graphics, phrasing, and other elements as new niches are carved out in what remains of the Internet’s digital playground. The bardcore songs tend to be renditions of popular music done in an electronic quasi-medieval style.
Sometimes the genre of bardcore is also called tavernwave, showing its kinship to other microgenres such as vaporwave and mallsoft. It shares the electronic aspect, as most bardcore is made using readily available computer software, as far as I can tell, though I could be wrong in this. Popular artists include Algal the Bard, who originated the style with their cover of a System of A Down’s track “Toxicity.” Hildegard von Blingin’ has been prolific with covers of “Creep” by Radiohead, “Jolene” by Dolly Parton and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” She distinguishes herself by singing over the medieval version, and by slightly altering the lyrics to resemble older forms of English. Beedle the Bard is another prolific bardcore artist. His cover of the Wu Tang classic “C.R.E.A.M.” is representative of the genre, and he has made quite a few covers of rap songs. Rap might even be the majority of what he has covered in his bardcore transformations.
Another theme she returned to over the course of the show was various mashups, collages or remixes of the song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve. That song came from their album Urban Hymns which has been one of the bestselling albums in UK history. Of the many tracks I loved in this mix was a rap by Ren Gill over the music of Bitter Sweet Symphony. Lyrically it was a cutting and heartfelt commentary on life in London and Britain from the view on the street. And though it was all about London, a city where I’ve never set foot, but traveled to in books, movies, TV shows, and the via the wireless magic of radio, the socioeconomic aspects of the words, juxtaposing not left and right, but top and bottom, resonated with me here in the Midwest. As I listened I felt a strong bond of kinship with my friends across the pond. As my mate One “Deck” Pete says, “Radio connects us all”.
After the show was over I went down a bit of a Ren rabbit hole, because I couldn’t get that rap out of my head. It turns out Ren Gill is an amazing guitar player and singular rapper with a gift for narrative. In essence, he could be considered a bardcore rapper. Not because his music makes use of quasi-medieval sounds, but because of his talent and skills of verbal execution put him in league with the lyrical masters of poetic narrative. The dude is a bard. His music is bardcore down to the bone.
Plus, he is from Wales. You know, the place that gave us the famous bard Taliesin. Not that Wales has a monopoly on bards. Singing and storytelling are worldwide traditions (consider the griots of West Africa for one of many examples), but Wales was home to the Eisteddfod, the competitive meeting held between bards and minstrels first mentioned in the written record back in the day of the twelfth century. A bloke by the name of Lord Rhys first held the Eisteddfod in 1176 as a competition in poetry and music at Cardigan Castle. When the Wales was conquered by the Edwardians during their conquest in the 13th century, they closed down the existing bardic schools as part of the Anglicization of the countries nobles. Later the Eisteddfod was resuscitated by the Gwyneddigon Society, a group dedicated to Welsh culture, in the 18th century. Later the Eisteddfod was picked up as perfect vehicle for the Gorsedd Cymru, which was steeped in an eclectic alchemical mixture of Druidism, Philosophy, Mysticism and Christianity.
The Gorsedd Cymru was itself a revival. A Welshman by the name of Prydain ab Aedd Mawr, who was said to have lived one thousand years before the Christian era, had started the Gorsedd as a means to transmit the work of poets and musicians from generation to generation. In 1792 the Gorsedd was rekindled as Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain the lovable Rapscallion best known as Iolo Morganwg, given name, Edward Williams. He based the Gorsedd Cymru on his imaginative ideas of Celtic Druidry. The Gorsedd made its first appearance at the Eisteddfod at the Ivy Bush Inn in Carmarthen in 1819, and its close association with the festival has continued since then.
I’m not sure at all if Ren has ever been to an Eisteddfod, or what his take might be on things such as Druidry and Celtic infused mysticism. What I do know is that he was born Ren Gill in Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales, on March 29th 1990 and was raised in Dwyran, on the isle of Anglesey (Ynys Môn in Welsh). Anglesey was the last refuge of the Druids before they got stamped out in the ancient times. The isle has long been esteemed as a place of mystical power. Ren had musical aspirations from an early age and after he got a guitar he taught himself how to play it by slowing down the songs of Jimi Hendrix to copy and learn how to play them. Starting with wanting to copy the music of a master is always a good sign! Ren also made beats using the popular computer software Reason and hawked these CDs at the music festivals he wen to with his parents. Ren went to study music at Bath Spa University and while he was there he formed the indie hop-hop group Trick The Fox. From there, in 2009, he caught the eyes of the music industry and signed a record contract with Sony in 2010. He started working on an album but became too sick to complete it and moved back home to Wales. He was bedridden for most of the day due to the severity of his sickness. Thus began a run around between himself and the health system. Symptoms suggested autoimmune illness combined with a mental health crisis, but he was misdiagnosed. He did not in fact have bipolar disorder, he was not in fact psychotic. It took him awhile to get a correct diagnosis of Lyme disease in Belgium in 2016, but by then he had suffered from the treatments received for the wrong disease. In that time, despite his ordeal, he never lost the dream of making it as a musician, and he started working on music as best he could in his bedroom. The same year he got his diagnosis he released his debut solo album Freckled Angels, self released without any help from Sony. This had a bunch of material first used in Trick The Fox.
Between 2016 and the time of this writing he has continued to release music. His viral hit “Hi Ren,” came out at the end of 2022 and is one example of why I consider his style bardic. It’s the guitar. It’s the narrative. It is the two points of view, that seemed to have come from him effortless, but are actually the product of his years of effort putting the time in honing his art.
Listening to Ren got me thinking again on the topic of epic rap.
John Michael Greer has written about how he thinks rap is the seed of a future form of epic poetry. He writes:
“I’m not personally fond of rap, as it happens, but I can recognize a vibrant cultural upsurge when I see one. It’s a little dizzying to have a seat on the sidelines while a new tradition of bardic poetry is being born—for that’s what we’re talking about, of course. More than five thousand years ago, performers with a single string instrument for backup created rap numbers celebrating the events of their time; one of those, passed down from performer to performer, eventually got copied down on clay tablets by industrious scribes and titled Shutur Eli Sharri. We know it today as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The same process in other ages, with slightly different backup instruments pounding away to give emphasis to chanted words, gave us the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Song of Roland, Beowulf, and the beat goes on.”
Even if we are not at the point where rap is the means for transmitting a cultures epic tales, we are at the point where it is continuing to develop its potential for narrative storytelling. Ted Gioia has pointed out that there is currently a return to narrative in pop music. He writes that, “narrative song is especially well suited to the four-chord patterns that underpin so many current day pop hits. Those repeating harmonic cushions don’t offer much in the way of musical sophistication, but do create ideal vamps for supporting a story—not much different from the gusle drones used by Eastern European bards to underpin their epic tales.” He goes on to say that the reemergence of narrative centered music, after a time when popular songs were mostly lyrical or dance, implicates “a glimpse into an emerging movement in society at large.”
When we talk about narrative songs, what we are mostly talking about is the ballad.
Ren is another example of this trend. For my part I think a lot of it has to do with the way people crave story. We never got away from story. As postmodernism erupted in the 1960s and 70s, with its fractured and fragmented outlooks, we still had at least elements of narrative and vague outlines of action, even in the most esoteric tomes where it was often hard to pin down a point-by-point plot.
Of course the ballad never really disappeared to begin with. It was carried forth by such singers as Shirley Collins and others in the British Folk Revival. The ballad was documented by the likes of Alan Lomax and other song collectors in America. Recordings were transmitted from these collections, and on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. All this traditional songs went on to inform the Folk Revival happening in the United States and influenced Bob Dylan and company, and was championed by beatnik bards such as Allen Ginsberg, who had given us our own homegrown American Romanticism. Dylan studied these old songs like he was cramming for a PhD thesis. He learned to crib, copy and mimic these for his own great artistic purposes. The ballad also had a place in popular country music, which could be considered folk adjacent. The ballad lived on in the heavy metal music of the glam and hair variety in the eighties, where it became a sacharine staple with its sweet guitar solos. In rap, the murder ballad made a reappearance if in altered and different form.
Ren’s trilogy of songs The Tale of Jenny and Screech, make for an impressive case that rap really may be on its way to becoming the next form of epic poetry. These long form narrative efforts tell a conclusive story. Broken down into “Jenny’s Story,” “Screech’s Tale,” and “Violet’s Tale.” It’s the kind of thing that you might once have read in a penny dreadful and concerns many of the predicaments facing people today. Domestic abuse, mental illness, drug addiction. The timeless topics of love, incest and murder are also covered. It’s dark material. But so it ever was. The human species is drawn to the form of tragedy so that we may have a chance for catharsis.
I’m hopeful that the next time I’m dragged to a renfest by my family, that that there will be more bardcore music being played in the background, quasi medieval versions of contemporary rap songs. With any luck there will be bards, inspired by the example of Ren, wondering around with their guitars, busking and delivering epic narrative raps.
If not at a renfest in the coming years, than at some fair or festival held on the fairgrounds in the deindustrial dark age to come.
Green Day's album "Dookie" has turned 30. It now gets the deluxe box set reissue treatment. That is kind of weird to me. Perhaps, after thirty years, it is time to put this album in a dog poop bag, and put it into the trash.
Am I being too harsh? Maybe, I finally am.
When I first saw this box set it, celebrating its 30th anniversary, it made me feel old. I know that's relative. Suddenly I was back in the eighth grade when this came out, when I was first exposed to the Green Day version of punk rock, fourteen years old, hitting the streets with a skateboard. Sure, Green Day, was more pop than punk, but there were many great pop punk bands that I liked much better. It was the same time in my life when I was getting turned on to the better punk rock music of The Descendants, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, The Ramones, and later the anarcho-punk that came out England such as Crass, Conflict, Chumbawamba, Flux of Pink Indians and the like. Crass, earyl Chumbawamba and Rudimentary Peni became favorites for me. I really liked that noisey stuff. From there I kept looking, searching, for you know, the sound... the sound that you like... the sound that turns you on, the music that gets you excited, the song and bands you've always been waiting to find and hear.
Green Day was an anomaly within this mix, and never much found its way onto the mix tapes I received or made. As I listen to Dookie now on my headphones, it still doesn't move me very much. I admit the catchiness of some of the songs, such as Longview. But perhaps I've heard them too many times, even if it wasn't me who was putting on the record. Despite this, many of the other bands that had been brought up on Lookout Records I really loved, and it was The Queers who probably remain my favorite. That was my first bonafide punk rock show as well, The Queers opening for Rancid. Probably not long after Dookie came out. And though the Rancid show was good, it was The Queers who really shined that night.
Admittedly, part of my own dissing of Green Day back in the day, and now, was because of their popularity. With a chip on my shoulder as a middle class skater punk from the westside, I got irritated with all the people my own age who fell in love with it, but they didn't like the hard hitting and lyrically more devastating music of Bad Religion and the like. Well, now I don't need to be such a jerk about it, but I still find myself driven to comment on the band and album, as in this email.
However, I'm reminded of the punk novel by Stacy Wakefield, The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory. Set in 1995, its about a young punk girl who goes to NYC and gets involved with the squatters and the underground hardcore music scene there, (hence the crust).
"Sid teams up with a musician from Mexico and together they find their way across the bridge to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Packs of wild dogs roam the waterfront and the rough building in which they finally find space is occupied by misfits who don’t know anything about the Manhattan squatting scene, Food Not Bombs, Critical Mass, or hardcore punk. But this is Sid’s chance and she’s determined to make a home for herself—no matter what."
It was a fun coming-of-age novel with a romantic subplot, and the one thing I always remembered about it was how the main character talks about the guy she falls for, and how she can listen to Green Day with him, without pretending to always have to listen to the harder stuff like Nausea, Aus-Rotten, and Filth.
Perhaps there is a good reason that part of the book stuck with me. In music as with reading: you can't always be delving into the Herman Hesse, Dostoyevsky, or the Bronte's. Sometimes you need to read some Mickey Spillane, Robert E. Howard, Ed McBain or what have you. In the same way you can't always be listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage or Nurse With Wound. Sometimes you need to listen to Green Day.
And as I listen to "When I Come Around" for the upteenth time, its not so bad. I guess today was my day to listen to this turd of an album that I reviled so much in my past. But maybe it doesn't stink as much as I remembered. I understand why it hit home with all the kids out in the suburbs. And why they covered this song at so many Battles of the Bands. This may be the first time since those days in the 90s when I listened to this album straight through.
But the chances are good I might not listen to it straight through again for another thirty.
It wasn’t that long ago that Lucien Kali Breverman turned thirteen. He was Klay to his friends because Lucien felt to uptown for him, even then. It was the same year he’d gone into seventh grade, leaving elementary behind, and wound up at Gimble High, two neighborhoods away in the spotty streets of West Forest. He used to walk to school, but now he had to take the bus.
This was something he seldom looked forward to. In a car it would only take fifteen minutes or less to get home and up into his room where he could pick up his drumsticks and pretend Johnny’s face was the drum head, pretend Johnny was receiving a beating. Or boot up his Xbox to play Call of Duty and pretend it was Johnny who was the enemy. The problem was Johnny was always on the bus, and with all the stops, the trip took over an hour. Johnny was a sophomore and it was his second time being a sophomore. When Johnny was on the bus, it was never a smooth ride.
Klay’s best friend Raelon had moved to a different neighborhood and rode a different route. The choice of who to sit with, just like at lunch, hung over him like a cloud of smoke and dust from one of the raging wildfires that had blanketed his city with smog over the summer. Sitting in the back was more fun, but it was also dangerous. That turf belonged to Johnny and his minions. School had just let out and Klay lingered on the back of the sidewalk waiting for the bus to fill up, hoping Johnny would get on first, so he could sit closer to the front. It was unfortunate that the front was the place where the droolers and other dweebs congregated, but the strategy had worked for him so far. He didn’t see Johnny. Maybe he’d skipped school. The bus was filling up so he had to move, he had to get on. Then he felt a hard knock to his shoulder, as Johnny bumped into him on purpose from behind.
“Maybe we can sit together today, buddy, whaddya think of that?” Johnny said as he stood waiting for Klay to get on ahead of him.
Klay hesitated and Johnny pushed him in the back. “Go ahead, get on.”
Klay was flushed, and huffed his way on to the bus, hoping to find someone to sit next to who was sympathetic. The bus driver hadn’t once stepped in on Klay’s behalf to stop Johnny’s bullying, he never said a word to shut up the rowdiness in the back. The bus driver’s long hair often concealed headphones. He didn’t pay any attention to the kids, and barely paid attention to the road. He’d overheard his Grandpa Jason grumble to his Mom, who’d been discussing the situation after the second incident, and remembered him saying the driver was probably afraid of getting slapped with a lawsuit if he stepped in to reprimand the kids.
As Klay walked passed the driver, he crossed the rubicon into the netherworld that was the school bus. Three seats back an earth angel awaited him, a radiant girl he had never seen before.
“You mind if I sit here?” as he slid into the empty seat without waiting for a response.
“Sure. Be my guest,” she said.
“Would you do me a favor and switch seats, I need to sit by the window.”
“If you really have to.”
Johnny stood in the aisle and leaned over the girl to taunt Klay.
“Oh, so you don’t want to sit with me? I guess you’re going to have to hide behind this puny little girl. Well don’t worry, you’re gonna catch these hands again soon enough.” He slammed his right fist into the palm of his left.
“Well this ain’t the day, chief,” the girl said as she stood up. “Why don’t you go in the back derp, and shut your flapping face?”
She was a lean five foot three, but a chill seemed to emanate from her, and Klay new it wasn’t a blast from the AC; no such thing existed on this bus. Then he caught a whiff of what smelled liked mud, like cold sod on a day of heavy October rain.
A chorus of deep ooohs and laughter percolated around the seats, and someone said, “Come on now girl, you don’t want to trigger Johnny!”
But there was something in her iciness that caused him to zip his lip and slink down into the back where he did shut his trap.
“Thanks for that. I owe you one,” Klay said.
“Yes, you do. Care to make it up to me?”
“Sure,” he said, as he looked at her with care. “Did you just transfer here?”
“No… It seems like I’ve been going here forever.”
He smelled that scent of wet earth again though it hadn’t rained for days.
“Will you walk me home?” she asked.
He gave his ascent and asked “what’s your home room?”
“302, with Mr. Hagg.”
“Wait, I’m in 302. That’s Ms. Grundle.”
She just shrugged and didn’t say anything else. He tried to continue the conversation, but she wouldn’t speak. He felt grateful for what she’d done, and felt like his luck had turned, because she was a smashing beauty. Her style was half-preppie, half-punk, and her eyes were emerald green. Her strawberry blonde hair smelled like fresh cut roses. Yet the longer he sat next to her, the colder he got.
She didn’t say anything else until they got to the stop at Lake Grove Cemetery.
“Let’s go,” she said and grabbed her bag off the floor.
She managed to get off before him, and when he stepped onto the sidewalk he thought she’d disappeared. He turned around, and on the second turn, she was there again. He for sure needed a nap when he got home. He was tired, or maybe going crazy like his friend Raelon always said.
In quietude she led him into the cemetery. Maybe she doesn’t want to go home, he thought. Maybe she wants to give me kiss, or make out. He’d heard of kids doing that in the cemetery, and he hoped to join their ranks.
She took him along the winding paths, past the ponds and their geese, past the bone white mausoleums littered with orange maple leaves. She took him into a plot underneath a mighty oak as acorns crunched underneath his feet. No sound came from her.
“Thanks for bringing me home,” she said and bent to give him a kiss. The wind picked up just then and she was wisped away, gone before his eyes.
He looked down at his feet, bewildered, and noticed the fresh cut roses on the gray marble gravestone.
Born January 15th, 1981, Died October 13th 1997
Beloved Daughter, Granddaughter, Sister
He pulled out his phone and googled her name. She’d died in an accident while walking home along the train tracks after being bullied off the bus by the resident mean girl.
The next year and every year thereafter on October 13th Klay would bring her fresh cut flowers.
--Justin Patrick Moore
October 13, 2023
PDF File of Story
"Your body belongs to you, and in the appropriate ritual, it has been given to you to explore the full dimensions of your being." -Fakir Musafar
Putting a sharp pointy object straight through the skin is a time honored practice among us humans. Piercings have long been a way we have sought to make ourselves beautiful. Wearing jewelry through the skin has been a part of our aesthetics of adornment dating back thousands of years.
But why do we pierce? The answer to this question has varied depending on the time and era. Some people have gotten piercings for magical, mystical and spiritual purposes; for others it is just a way of expressing themselves. Some get piercings for sexual pleasure, such as on the nipples or genitalia. There was a time in America when getting your ear pierced as a man, was seen as an act of outright rebellion. Getting another part of the body punctured was beyond the beyond of proper decorum, for either sex. Yet in other societies being on the receiving end of a needle for a piercing is a way to conform to the norms of the culture, be a part of the group, and fit in. It is much the same with those who belong to certain subcultures, such as punk, where a piercing can signify affiliation.
Piercings started to regain prominence in western society starting in the seventies, and underpinning their revival was a strong current of magic.
ENTER THE FAKIR
The late Fakir Musafar was often called the father of the modern primitive movement, for his pioneering work in body piercing, modification, ritual and teaching. Fakir was born on August 10, 1930 as Roland Loomis on what was then the Sissiton Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota, a baby of the Great Depression. There wasn’t a lot going on in Aberdeen, where he grew up, and by 1943, at age thirteen, he was a bored teenager, looking for something to do while the world was at war. He felt different, and knew there must be something different to discover out there in the wide world; something other than what was presented to him by straight-laced society.
Loomis took to haunting the school library, in search of anything strange. In one of the libraries dusty and forgotten corners he found what he was looking for in some old issues of National Geographic Magazine. His imagination became captivated by the pictures and articles he saw of people from other times and places. There was one issue in particular, from the 1920’s, where he saw photographs of people in India who had pierced their flesh with hooks and hung suspended from a cross arm high up in the air. The thirteen year old wondered why they were doing this. He also wondered what it felt like. The imagery called to him, touched something deep inside his soul.
A couple of years later Loomis learned that some Native American tribes also practiced piercing their flesh so they could either hang suspended from it, or be pulled for long hours against the these piercings in a ritual known as the Sun Dance. This set off an aha! moment for Loomis. The tribes who practiced these rites had been those of the Plains Indians, many of whom lived in South Dakota, his birthplace. These ceremonies had last taken place some fifty years before he was born.
There are a number of commonalities across tribal cultures that held the Sun Dance. A sacred fire, smoking and praying with the sacred pipe, and fasting from food and water were all typical. The songs and dances used were passed down over many generations. Traditional drums and drumming accompanied the song and dance, the latter of which was seen as an arduous spiritual test. Some Sun Dances involved a ceremonial piercing of the skin, a further test of bravery and physical endurance. The pain and blood were seen as part of the sacrifice involved in the ceremony, that was used for the benefit of the tribe. Some dances involved going around a pole that the men were attached to by a piece of rawhide pierced through the skin of their chest.
He also learned about the Okipa ceremony of the Mandan people of North Dakota. It was a four-day ceremony performed every year during the summer that retold their creation story. Like the Sun Dance, the Okipa involved dancing inside a lodge filled with their sacred objects, while men prayed, fasted and sought visions. The younger men demonstrated their bravery by being pierced with wooden skewers pushed the skin of their chests, and backs. These men were hung by ropes from beams in the lodge or from trees, while their legs were weighed down from other skewers sent through their thighs and calves. Crying was seen as cowardice. Those who could withstand these intense sensations the best went on to become leaders within the community.
Loomis started hunting out the places where the Sun Dance and Okipa ceremonies had taken place, and went to visit them on his bike. He found they had left behind a psychic residue and that this residue seeped into his own life as he absorbed the energies from the places where the Lakota, Arikira and Sissiton peoples had pierced their flesh, sometimes in rites where they hung from a tree. Loomis got to know some of the trees, as some were still there, holding memory on the living land. This became a tremendous inspiration to the young man.
He was so inspired by these discoveries he had to try piercing himself. He even felt like he had done these things before -perhaps in a past life. He claims his first experience of these past lives came to him at age four. His later anthropological studies gave confirmation to his feelings. So he started modifying his body. Loomis did his first permanent body piercing, on his penis, at age fourteen, conducted his first mini Sun Dance ritual and had an out-of-body experience as the result at age seventeen, and his first self-made tattoo at age nineteen. At first it was a private thing, and he kept it private, kept it secret for thirty odd years before he went public.
While he pursued the inner calling of exploring the outer body his destiny had born him into, he also racked up some impressive skills inside the confines of the culture at large. He worked for the U.S. Army during the Korean War between 1952 and 1954, where he was an Instructor in Demolitions and Explosives. He taught ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray’s. Loomis picked up a B.S.E in electrical engineering from the Northern State University and an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, the city he’d moved to at age 25. His creative abilities as a writer helped him in his work in executive positions as an ad man in San Francisco. He also operated his own advertising agency in Silicon Valley for a spell.
Yet there was also isolation and shame around the things he was doing in secret, and those came from fear. Fear, that if he let people in his interests and practices, he would be deemed crazy, institutionalized, locked up and the key thrown away. Through his extensive research into other cultures, and long talks with native elders, he had learned that his interest wasn’t something that should be considered a sickness, a perversion or a mutilation of the body, but a practice that could lead into what some traditions called a “state of grace.” Rituals of piercing could be used as a way to access different modes of consciousness.
Loomis eventually came out of the closet as piercing freak, a process that started when he met Doug Malloy in 1972, an eccentric millionaire, and ally who proved to be the alloy that bound the disparate elements of the underground piercing scene together and brought them up to the surface.
AN ECCENTRIC ALLOY
Malloy was a man who led a double life. His first life was as Richard Simonton, an aficionado of organ music, steamboats, a family man and a businessman who worked for the Muzak corporation, selling their piped in sounds to corporations in California. The side of him that was Simonton led a fascinating life in his own right, but I don’t have space to get into that aspect of his personality in this context. Simonton tended to keep his fly zipped anyway with regard to his penchant for piercing his penis, except in sympathetic company, or when he wrote about the subject as Doug Malloy. His double life was also exemplified by his bisexuality.
Of his many interests, Malloy had made a study of the New Thought movement, even going so far as to meet Ernest Holmes, author of The Science of Mind, in 1932. His interest in metaphysical and spiritual topics prompted him to traveled extensively in India and the Philippines where he explored Eastern thought-ways. His mind had always been bent towards the unusual and different. Adorning his body with bits of metal poking through the flesh wasn’t so weird. At some point he started getting pierced.
In 1975 Malloy’s fictional autobiography titled Diary of a Piercing Freak came out, released by a publisher who specialized in fetish material. It was later republished in softcover as The Art of Pierced Penises and Decorative Tattoos. Malloy had also started to cultivate a network of like minded individuals. These included Roland Loomis, Jim Ward, Sailor Sid Diller and the Londonite tattooist Alan Oversby, better known by his alias Mr. Sebastian.
Malloy had also organized the Tattoo & Piercing group (T&P) of ten to fourteen people or so who would meet once a month for a “show and tell.” Malloy had seen some photos of the experiments Loomis was doing with his body that dated back to 1944, and invited him to be a part of T&P. This group expanded the practice of piercing and tattooing as the individuals gathered would later help each-other execute further body modifications. Together they developed a lexicon around body piercing, what each type of piercings was called, and what the best practices and tools were to do them.
Jim Ward, the other prong in the trifecta that catapulted the practice of piercing to what it is today in America, was a close friend of Malloy’s and co-founder of the T&P gatherings.
WARDEN OF THE BARBELL
In the course of his long time wandering, Doug Malloy had made a visit to Germany where meet Horst Streckenbach, better known as Tattoo Samy. Samy had been born in 1925 and got his first tattoo at the ripe old age of ten. By 1959 the rubble had stopped bouncing from the second world war and Samy opened a tattoo shop in Aschaffenburg. Later moved he moved it to the bigger burg of Frankfurt in 1964. There, one of Samy’s students was a guy named Manfred “Tattoo” Kohrs. Together they worked on developing some new styles of piercing jewelry, namely, the barbell. In time, Samy started to make trips to America, and on these visit’s he would come to LA to visit Malloy, who in turn introduced him to Ward and others in the T&P circle.
Ward was born in 1941 in Western Oklahoma, moved to Colorado at age elven, and by the time he was 26, was in New York city where he joined a gay S&M biker group, the New York Motorbike Club. That’s where he got on the nipple piercing tip, and started studying how to make jewelry. Ward stated, "The first barbells I recall came from Germany… On one of his [Samy’s] first visits he showed us the barbell studs that he used in some piercings. They were internally threaded, a feature that made so much sense that I immediately set out to recreate them for my own customers."
From his own studies, and from Samy’s innovations, Ward began to put his spin onto the piercing jewelry he was creating, including the fixed bead ring design. Meanwhile Malloy had encouraged Ward to start a business for piercing people and gave him the funds to do so. Ward ran this business at first ran privately, out of his own home starting in 1975. He dubbed his studio the Gauntlet. Malloy drew upon his contacts to help Ward build a clientele. Ward the placed ads for the Gauntlet in underground gay and fetish publications.
His business started to boom.
BODY MODIFIERS UNITED
Next up on Malloy’s masterplan for modifying the body of the American republic was to host an International Tattoo Convention, in Reno, Nevada. He did this with the help of tattooists Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, and invited both Loomis and Ward to participate in the convention and show their piercings to the public. From this fixed point, 1977 on the timeline, piercings began to take off in tandem with tattooing.
Malloy asked Roland Loomis to demonstrate the various practices he had begun to adopt from other cultures, such as laying on a bed of nails or bed of swords for the convention. Malloy didn’t think the name Loomis was memorable, and he encouraged him to change his name for the event so as to receive more publicity. Loomis had revered the 12th century Sufi saint whose name was Fakir Musafar. This saint had also practiced piercing himself as a way to get closer to the divine. Loomis adopted the name for himself and it stuck.
His namesake was a mystic from Meshed, Persia (now Iran) who lived for sixteen years with six daggers embedded in his chest and back. He also had six horseshoes he kept suspended from twelve permanent piercings in his arms and shoulders. He believed, as did the man who took his name, that unseen worlds can be accessed through the body. From the unseen worlds the very source of being can be found. The stories around the original Musafar speak of how he was ridiculed and thought of as strange. He felt his message was going unheard and these rejections caused him to die of heartbreak.
At the convention Loomis “came out” as body piercer and started to go by his adopted name. Fakir Musafar became the mystical and magical pioneer around these practices in modern times laying out a metaphysical and cross-cultural groundwork for body modification. Meanwhile, Jim Ward, bolstered by the success of his private practice, took The Gauntlet public in 1978, and laid the framework for the commercial success of piercing with its first business.
All of this was synergerzied by the networking and business acumen and can-do spirit of Doug Malloy. Together these three exerted a lasting influence on the American body. As Musafar, Ward, and Malloy continued their crusade, they each also contributed further metaphysical, theoretical, and practical material to the growing scene. Malloy wrote the pamphlet Body & Genital Piercing in Brief, which continued the process of getting stories into circulation about the origins of various piercings, especially those relating to private parts. In 1977 Jim Ward started publishing Piercing Fans International Quarterly, which featured contributions from both Malloy and Musafar, as well as the coterie of metal clad pierceniks who had begun coming out of the shadows.
Fakir Musafar continued to develop the ritual dimensions around piercing and other more extreme forms of body modification, transforming himself in the process into a contemporary shaman and father of the modern primitive movement. Along the way he racked up some impressive experiences, within the body, and while hanging from hooks, in the planes beyond out of body.
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Read the other articles in the DOWN HOME PUNK series.
We humans have been tinkering on ourselves from the get go. We have made tools to manipulate our environment as well tools to modify our bodies. Since we first donned clothes, we have looked for ways to use our coverings as expressions of individuality on the one hand, and kinship with our families, tribes, extended clans and culture on the other. These adornments extend to jewelry and piercings, and tattoos. Just as rings, bracelets and necklaces may be given to mark a stage of life or commemorate an event, so too may a permanent tattoo be used to mark a stage of life or transition in time. Examples of tattoos, piercings and body modification go back deep into ancient times of our human record.
Many types of body modification are done by people without giving it a second thought, that they are doing something to their body, it is so natural and ingrained in the culture. Hair styling and dying in a salon by older suburban women is one example, as is the daily ritual of putting on makeup. To shave or not to shave, that is another question of expression. Painting nails, or even bothering to clip them are others. Expensive surgeries for breast implants and tummy tucks, and a quick nose job for leading ladies and men, not to mention teeth whitening, are all examples of what may be considered acceptable forms of body modification in a materialist minded America intent on keeping up appearances. Many contemporary life saving surgical procedures wouldn’t be possible without some extent of body modification.
Though there are many ways to modify the body, in the context of this article I’ll be writing mostly of those that were taken up in the punk community under the broader rubric and pan-subculturalism of “body modification” as relating to scarification, tatoos, piercings, implants, body suspension and some other techniques borrowed from traditional cultures and carnie culture. This first section deals strictly with tattoos.
MY BODY, MY TEMPLE
Those raised in a Judaeo-Christian worldview, and who have stuck with the tradition, tend to view the body as a temple. This view seems to originate from a Bible verse attributed to Paul (who to be fair, could be as brilliant spiritually as he was off base, in my opinion.) He wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:20 “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (NIV). Yet treating the body with the respect due to a deity isn’t only found in Christianity. We can see echoes of this principle at work in Hinduism, with their highly evolved systems of yoga and Ayurveda, and other religions.
It was the latter-day punk of the kitchen, Anthony Bourdain who said “your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
I think both viewpoints are valid, and it is useful with any binary such as this to try and triangulate away from the extremes. What about a temple inside an amusement park, or an amusement park inside of a temple? The carnival happens before the holy season of Lent. Festivals are held on high and holy feast days, and I can see the return of the festival where the passions of the body are indulged in periodically as a necessary steam valve in our future world with more limited resources. As in the period of festival, the sacred and profane can both exist within the collective body. So too in the way we adorn and modify our individual bodies can partake of the sacred, the profane, and points in between, as it has throughout history.
AN ELDER FORM OF ART
Tattoos can rightly be considered one of the eldest forms of art. Our evidence for this goes way back. An Egyptian mummified priestess of Hathor known as Amunet was one of humanities oldest examples of a tattooed person for some time. She was doing her thing during the Middle Kingdom Period (2160–1994 BCE) and hung out with some other priestesses who got tattooed as part of a ritualistic process. In this time, tattoos were reserved for women, and may have been part of magical rites regarding fertility and rejuvenation surrounding the worship of Hathor. Egyptain menfolk started getting ink during the 3rd and 4th dynasties when the pyramids were being built. The Egyptians were influencers, being the center of civilization for some thirty odd centuries, and from there the practice of tattooing spread outwards to other cultures who came to trade and learn, going deeper into Africa, and over into Asia and Europe.
Egyptians weren’t the first to make permanent marks on their body and the priestesses of Hathor had to give up their OG status when Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. Ötzi was dated to between 3350 and 3105 BCE. The tattoos found along the preserved skin of Ötzi were line and dot patterns. Researchers noted how the placement of these lines and dots were along acupuncture points. This points to the idea that he was not just tattooed for adornment, but also for spiritual purposes. Ötzi had a total of 61 tattoos. In 2018 tattoos were again found on Egyptian mummies using infrared that were of the same vintage as Ötzi. Numerous other ancient mummified bodies from other parts of the world have also been found with body modifications. This shows how widespread the practice was in early times.
The nomadic Ainu people brought tattooing into Japan around 2000 BCE. On those islands the magical aspect of the practice seems to have been downplayed in favor of simply having and enjoying them for their aesthetic beauty. Over the centuries the Japanese developed a tradition of tattooing that involved large pictures over big swathes of the body, creating what is now called a “sleeve.” This tradition was adopted by the Yakuza between 1600 and 1800 and still continues to this day. Known as irezumi in Japan, traditional tattooist will still "hand-poke" there work using ink is inserted beneath the skin with the traditional tools of sharpened needles made of bamboo or steel. Getting tatted up this way can take years to complete.
Starting between 1200 and 400 B.C. tattooing migrated from China and Russia to the Picts and also into the Celtic countries of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The Celts liked the color blue and used a substance known as woad to imprint symbols from their culture onto their body. These included spirals, labyrinths, and knotwork.
Native American tribes were also invested in the practice of tattooing and associating it with spiritual power. They would prick themselves with sticks and needles and then rub soot and dyes into the open sores to form their pictures. Often these pictures were made in commemoration of battles they had fought or they were of animal powers whose strengths and abilities they wished to emulate, or of traditional symbols whose magic they wished to imbue into their life.
At the same time tattoos were flourishing in North America they were also flourishing across the Polynesian islands. The word tattoo itself comes from “tatu” as used by Polynesians and picked up by Captain James Cook -who also helped spread the tattooing habit to sailors, and bring it back into practice among that group after his visit to the islands in 1769. The Polynesians were all about the spiritual power of a tattoo, and they believed that it made the invisible powers a person had in the spiritual world visible on their body. A rich tradition of tattooing was carried out by these peoples, and it often involved rites of passage between father and son.
It was in Tahiti aboard the Endeavour, in July 1769, that Cook first noted his observations about the indigenous body modification and is the first recorded use of the word tattoo to refer to the permanent marking of the skin.
The Captain’s log notes how, "Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible... this method of Tattowing I shall now describe...As this is a painful operation, especially the Tattowing of their Buttocks, it is performed but once in their Lifetimes."
Sir Joseph Banks, the Science Officer and Expedition Botanist aboard the Endeavour was taken with the idea of getting a tattoo himself. Banks had first made his bones on the 1766 natural-history expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador. Then he signed up for Captain James Cook's first great voyage that lasted between 1768–1771 where he visited Brazil, Tahiti, and then spent six months in New Zealand and Australia. He came back with a tattoo upon him and heaps of fame for his voyage and work. A number of rank-and-file seamen and sailors came back with tattoos from their voyages, and this class of people began to adopt the practice further, helping to reintroduce tats to Europe, where they spread into other branches of military men, and into the criminal underworld.
Yet tattoos had already made some headway back in Europe among the aristocracy by another route. In 1862 Albert, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm on a visit to the Holy Land. Christian tattoo traditions can be traced back to the Holy Land, to Egypt and the Coptic tradition all the way back to the 6th and 7th century. The practice was passed on to a variety of Eastern communities including the Armenian, Ethiopian, Syriac and Maronite Churches. It is a standard practice within todays Coptic Church to get a Christian tattoo and show it as proof of faith in order to enter one of their churches. At the time of the Crusades this tradition was passed on Europeans who had come to the Holy Land where they received tattoos as part of their pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
These pilgrimage tattoos were one of the routes the practice went into the European aristocracy. Edward the VII got one after his pilgrimage, and George the V followed suit. King Frederick IX of Denmark, the King of Romania, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alexander of Yugoslavia and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, were all tatted up, often with elaborate Royal Coat of Arms and Family Crests.
Meanwhile in America Martin Hildebrandt learned the art of tattooing while in the U.S. Navy, which he had joined in the 1840s. During the Civil War he fought with Union soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, and often traveled from camp to camp tattooing his fellow enlisted men. The Civil War veteran, Wilbur F. Hinman, wrote that it was common for regiments to have tattooists among them who inked their fellows with "flags, muskets, cannons, sabers and an infinite variety of patriotic emblems and warlike and grotesque devices." It was also common for the soldiers to have their names and initials marked permanently on their body to serve as a way of identification should they be killed in action.
After his service Hildebrandt opened up a shop in New York City where he made tattooing his full-time job. His parlor was in a tavern on Oak Street in Manhattan, and opened between 1870 and 1872 and is most likely the first shop of its kind in America. Using vermilion and India ink, he tattooed people in black and red from across the spectrum of society. Nora Hildebrandt, who became his common law wife, also became a tattooed lady inked up by Old Martin. In 1885 she left to go on tour with a sideshow and he got arrested for disorderly conduct and was taken to the Insane Asylum where he died in 1890. But don’t blame that on his profession.
The carnie culture surrounding circuses, sideshows, and dime stores, with their freaks and tattooed ladies were another medium through which the practice of getting marked up permanently for life started to spread throughout the United States.
Becoming a tattooed lady was good work at the time, especially for those who wanted to have a bit more clink in their pocket and live life on their own terms. Dime stores, freakshows, and dime museums would often put ads in the paper looking for tattooed ladies, because they had become popular attractions. In the years that closed out the 19th century and opened up the 20th, it didn’t cost a fortune to get a tattoo, and if it was used as a way to make money, could be an investment. A full body job could be completed in less than two months and only set a gal back thirty buckaroos. Yet, if a tattooed lady was popular, she could rake in a Benjamin or two a week, give or take a little. Teachers in 1900 only made about seven dollars a week with room and board. Secretarial jobs might only earn about twenty-two dollars a week. Getting tatted up and showing it off to an eager public made sense, especially for those who wanted to leave behind traditional sex roles.
By the 1940s however, the craze surrounding tattoos had again abated for a time. People who had them were often considered outcasts, less-than’s, and, of course, freaks. Yet bikers, motor cycle clubs and other greaser types kept the tradition alive in the 1950s alongside the usual suspects of sailors, military men, and underworld inhabitants.
The cool factor started to creep back into the practice in the 1960s when Janis Joplin and other musicians, such as those in the Grateful Dead, started getting tatted up. Starting in the 1970s, tattoos started to move further into the mainstream and to people from all walks of life. Part of this had to do with the proliferation of subcultures where tattooing was seen as an acceptable form of self-expression. Freedom loving hippies, nihilistic punks, rappers and hip-hoppers and transgressive industrial music heads were all making modifications to their bodies.
In the 1980s tattooing got a magical boost from Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth (TOPY). TOPY was an artistically-oriented occult and magic group that emerged from the industrial music subculture surrounding Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. One dimension of it was that it was like a "fan club" for Psychic TV except instead of creating followers their intention was to create leaders and get people doing their own individual creative work. Active between between 1981 and the early 1990s, the people involved were also heavily interested in piercing, body modification, tattoos and what I have taken to calling "gender blending". They did a lot of magical and occult work around these practices -and with their added influence, body piercing and tattoos went from something being done by counterculture freaks to being de rigeur. Their magic worked. The same could be true of some of their ideas about gender. TOPY is another example of a fringe group doing magic that went on to have a wider influence on the culture at large. They often included ritual elements as part of their piercing and tattooing works aligning themselves with the retro cutting edge of modern primitivism.
Scholar Arnold Rubin’s had organized a symposium called "Art of the Body" at the University of California in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. He invited colleagues from the fields of anthropology, sociology, art history, archaeology, and folklore to come and share their work. There was a geographical and historical focus on body modifications from Europe and Euro- America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Pacific Basin (Asia, Oceania, and Native America). In 1988 he edited a book, “Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body” that showcased body art as a potent aesthetic and spiritual component of human behavior. The book started to circulate among the cognoscenti of the counterculture.
In Rubin’s book the term “Tattoo Renaissance” had been put forth to denote the 20th century moment where technology had changed tattooing practice. The tattooist went from just doing a job, often repeating the premade designs known as flash, to becoming a “Tattoo Artist” who made their own designs and fulfilled the dreams of their patrons, with a strong influence coming from Japan and Polynesian traditions of full body tattoos and sleeves.
Another book, "Modern Primitives: an Investigation of Contemporary Adornment & Ritual" put out by V. Vale and Re/Search publication came out a year later in 1989. V. Vale and Re/Search were stalwarts in the punk and industrial music scenes, where his zines and books of interviews always made a big splash. It ended up being another big influencer on many people in the underground music world and continued the push in this direction that was started by TOPY. A lot of the focus of the book was on genital piercings, which had started to be practiced again in the west by the aristocracy with the story that Prince Albert had pierced his dick. The topic of piercing will be covered in detail later, so hold those thoughts.
By the late 90s tattooing had become pervasive among members of Generation X who had grown up in these subcultures, and the practice was passed on to their children, the millennials and zoomers for whom the question of the legitimacy around getting a tattoo is foreign.
In the 21st century tattoos, while in many ways, always personal, have become even more about a person’s identity. People get these most personalized forms of art to embody something about their inner life. At the same time, getting a tattoo has become much more common, so where before it had been a signifier of uniqueness and transgression, now it is seen as just another avenue for possible self expression. Where in the past just having a tattoo was enough to be a personal marker, now having a tattoo isn’t seen as such a big deal, especially among zoomers and millenials, who are more likely to have been tattooed at least once. These markings take on extreme personal significance, and may relate to family motifs, and names of loved ones, to mother-daughter tatoos (as abound in my immediate family) to those resonate with some particular core of their being.
As we move deeper into the Aquarian Age it will be interesting to see how Americans mark up their bodies as continued evidence of their individualism.
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Read the other articles in the DOWN HOME PUNK series.
Henry Rollins, the muscle bound, big necked front man for hardcore band Black Flag and The Rollins Band, used to get the shit beat out of him at school. He used to be weak. He used to be bullied. But he was transformed from a snot nosed punching bag into a snot nosed punk.
Rollins was full of fear and humiliation. Terrible at sports he was picked on and made fun of by those playing the games. Terrible at schoolwork, the people who should have been his educators, scoffed at him and said he had a permanent future mowing lawns. His teachers even went so far as to call him “garbage can.” And like a garbage can, he reeked, emanating self pity and rage.
Being bullied and getting picked on, and being full of rage led him to getting in fights and boxing, but he was a spastic, wild, unpredictable.
I can relate to Rollins. For some people school is a time of fun, an escape into a world populated by peers and friendly mentors. For others, those peers were the people who pounded you when walked the halls, or waited at the bus stop. The teachers and mentors who could have helped, were too busy fawning over the pretty underage girls in their class -when they weren’t fawning over you. I can relate.
At lunch time, it was often the best bet to sit at the freak table, or the loser table. Sometimes adjacent to the stoner table, the kind of smart but drug addled kids who think Rush is the best band in the world. On the inverse, these are actually the cool kids. The ones you’d want to have your back during a black swan event, because freaks have fucking skills and know how to get shit done. But that doesn’t make it any easier being part of the underclass.
In my experience the skill set of the freaks tended towards the intellectual and artistic domains. To be open to the beauty of the natural world, to alternative types of music, and to a poetic way of looking at the world requires a certain degree of sensitivity. That sensitivity, sensed and picked up on by jock meatheads who interpret it as a threat, tend to lash out. By the same token, the sensitive typed attuned to abstract intellectual thinking, and inner worlds of poetic fancy, would do well to balance out their life by taking up activities that keep them in touch with their physical body. We are made of meat and bone, muscle and mineral, and our physical presence can be cultivated. Besides the many benefits to mental clarity and to living an embodied life, remaining in touch with our physical sides also gives the down home punk a chance to fight back and defend themselves when threatened with physical violence.
The hand of fate touched Henry Rollins when the path of his life crossed the path of teacher and Viet Nam vet named Mr. Pepperman. Rollins thought Mr. Pepperman was scary, and apparently so did the other students. Mr. Pepperman maintained a strict discipline in his classes where no one dared to talk. Once somebody did talk, that student had an example made out of him when Mr. Pepperman picked him up and held him against the wall.
Just from looking at “Garbage Can” Pepperman could see that Rollins was a bonafide member of the loser club. He saw how bad off he was. At this point in his life, Rollins had little confidence, but he was not without redemption. Not without the possibility of being whipped into shape. Some hidden potential lurked underneath the wiggling spastic mass of nerves and fear.
One day Mr. Pepperman asked Rollins if he had ever worked out with weights, and the answer was no.
As Rollins tells it, “He told me that I was going to take some of the money that I had saved and buy a hundred-pound set of weights at Sears. As I left his office, I started to think of things I would say to him on Monday when he asked about the weights that I was not going to buy. Still, it made me feel special. My father never really got that close to caring. On Saturday I bought the weights, but I couldn’t even drag them to my mom’s car. An attendant laughed at me as he put them on a dolly.”
When Monday rolled around he had to report back to Pepperman. So began Rollins high school training sequence that transformed from a nobody into the muscle bound frontman known and loved across the punk diaspora today. Part of Pepperman’s program to beef up the young punk was to hit Henry in the solar plexus at random times during the day in the hallway, when he wasn’t looking, much like the bullies had done. Pepperman’s first aim with this method was to get Rollins to a place where he could take a punch in the stomach. That required he do something practical, such as hitting the weights he’d bought and making something out of himself. Yet Pepperman gave a caveat, and one of his rules was that Rollins was not allowed to look in a mirror to check out his physique and see if his body was changing, if he was putting on muscle. He wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what the hell he was doing. He had to keep silent.
I feel this secrecy was crucial to his success. By not telling the other kids, not even the other losers, his mind was kept free from the additional stress of their disbelief in his ability, and the ridicule they would have rained down on him for trying to get in shape. If no one knew, no one could release barbs from the tongue, and these would not damage the self respect that was forged between himself and his trainer.
Mr. Pepperman showed him ten basic exercises in the gym, and for once Rollins actually paid attention to what a teacher was telling him. He went home and practiced, knowing this was his lifeline. Every so often in the hall Mr. Pepperman would deliver a punch to gut in the hall, shocking the tudents. As the weeks passed he added in the weights to his regimen and he started gaining strength.
Then one day out of nowhere Mr. Pepperman popped him in the chest on his way into a class, and Rollins just laughed it off. It didn’t buckle him, it didn’t cause his books to spew out on the floor like it had before. From that moment on he was hooked on lifting iron, a habit he has kept for life. A new measure of self-respect was born inside.
Weightlifting continued to teach Rollins. “It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.”
Strength of body lends itself to strength of mind. Over the years Rollins took his training regimen, and combined it with meditation, and the power of being active in the world: fronting one of the most prominent hardcore bands in punk rock, writing, acting, doing radio, and all the things Rollins has done.
“I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind. The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.”
For those who follow the path of the down home punk, it is critical to have some kind of discipline around physical health and the maintenance of the body. It need not be weight training, though it is an option with a venerable pedigree. Depending on the state of ones health, simple exercises ranging from gentle to stretching to casual walking can be enough. Others may start with activities around a sport such as roller derby, or revolve around transportation such as cycling and skateboarding.
Out of high school, I was not much in touch with my own body. I dabbled in yoga and tai chi, practiced some light qi gong hear and there. Later I found pilates and stuck with that on basically weekly basis and have added in some light weight lifting and additional stretching, along with regular walks, and seasonal hiking and occasional biking excursions that basically round out my level of activity. Punk rock is about individual discovery and finding the right kinds of exercise for your particular body is very individual.
However, it is an important component in living your own life on your times. The alternative is increasing debilitation which lends itself to increasing inactivity, and deterioration of health. If health is to be maintained outside of the strictures of Big Medicine and Big Pharma, looking after the body is as imperative as is looking after the mind, emotions and spirit.
Physical health however is only one way of understanding and interacting with the punk body. Modifications to the body in the form of tattoos, piercings, and other methods have a long tradition within the punk milieu. These will be looked at next.
Read the other articles in the DOWN HOME PUNK series.
“There has to be an alternative to the dole, do something creative.” –Steve Ignorant, interviewed in 1997.
From the ashes and fallout surrounding Russell’s death, something new was born. The Stonehenge Festival continued on as a regular event around the Summer Solstice, attracting more and more people to the standing stones. Wally would have been proud to have seen the success of his vision. Then in 1985 it was squashed down “as part of a general offensive against working class self-organisation police roadblocks were set up to prevent the festival happening anywhere near Stonehenge,” writes Ayers. The general ban on gatherings taking place anywhere near the ancient site around the Summer Solstice continues to this day. Police roadblocks are set up in the area of Wiltshire every June to keep the rabble out.
During the next few years after Wally’s death, as the Festival was taking off, Dial House became increasingly politicized. The house now existed as a functioning community on the fringe of society. The people who made it home lived outside the system, and somewhat off the grid. For Penny Rimbaud the death of Wally precipitated a period of personal crisis as he sought to uncover a possible conspiracy surrounding the hippies death, which he concluded was murder by the state even if he hadn’t been murdered outright by being stabbed or shot. He and the others who lived there began to wonder if their idyllic rural existence was a cop out to avoid further personal and social responsibility.
During the winters Penny had taken up working on a farm, potato picking, to earn some money. One day on the job Steve Williams, later to become Steve Ignorant, turned up. He was a very angry working class youth, full of vehemence in the knowledge that there was nothing really for him out in the world of 1970s Britain. He came round to Dial House with Rimbaud and came to see that the place was a haven. At around the same time Steve was getting into the new punk music scene. The energies were a heady brew and the style of punk made it possible for anyone to start a band even those with little to no musical experience. Steve told Penny, who had been playing music with Exit and the other groups about his intention to start a band. He signed on as the drummer, and soon the other members of the band clustered around them and came into the fold, including the radical feminist Eve Libertine who contributed additional vocals and creating the back and forth, male, female vocal trade off that became a standard part of later punk music.
Just as Dial House had been Wally’s HQ for the Stonehenge Free Festival, it became the center of operations for Crass. Living together in a low rent space they were able to pool their resources. Having their own place to practice in allowed them to spend the money that bands living in London would have had to have spent on renting a practice space. Using cheap equipment and whatever they could scrounge up allowed them to start their own record label after their first EP put out by the Small Wonder label fell prey to censorship.
The song in question was called “Asylum”. Workers at the Irish pressing plant contracted to manufacture the disc refused to handle it due to the allegedly blasphemous content of the song, "Asylum". Later it was released with the track removed and replaced by two minutes of silence, wryly retitled "The Sound Of Free Speech". After this incident they seized the reigns of production for themselves and Crass Records was launched as in house label. They wouldn’t be silenced and to ensure their voices were heard they wanted to be in control of all aspects of their future productions. Using money from a small inheritance that had been left to one of the band, the piece was shortly afterwards re-recorded and released as a 7" single using its full title, "Reality Asylum". When The Feeding of the 5000 was re-pressed on Crass Records the missing track was restored. Gee Vaucher managed the visual aspect of the band, designing the covers and sleaves and providing artistic backdrops and videos for their performances. Their lifestyle may have been bohemian and Spartan, but by living that way they were able to produce more than they consumed.
In the section on craft I’ll get more into the operations of their record label, press and their achievements as a band. Yet all that did could not have been achieved if they hadn’t made the effort to develop a communal living space. The goals of a green wizard and deindustrial oriented down home punk house need not be the same as Crass. As individuals and as a band, and as anarchists, they never told others what to do. Yet what they did was so powerful it still resonates today.
Even as they never told anyone else how to love, through venting their frustrations with the Thatcher government and by expressing the ideals and practical philosophies they lived by, they came to have a huge influence in the areas of anarchism, pacifism, feminism, and vegetarianism.
Part of what is so admirable about Crass is that they walked their talk, and inspired countless others elsewhere to do so as well. Their influence can easily traced within the broader punk movement itself, and formed much of my own inspiration for getting on with things and doing them myself as a teenager. This is partly why I think they are a relevant model for green wizardry. The point isn’t to let their example dictate any particular aesthetic style or even political ideology, which I think the members of the band would be disappointed by, but rather to look at them and see what worked for them, how they did it, and how those actions might be creatively replicated or copied and applied to the circumstances of our times. They wanted to show by their example that other paths were possible: paths outside the dominance of an indifferent government, paths apart from a record industry that was more interested in money than communicating with listeners, living in a way that reflected their conscience, rather than numbing their conscience by succumbing to a life of inactivity and passive entertainment.
“Nothing has ever been done here by design. Something happens because someone’s here and it might be making bread or it might be painting a wall or it might be making a band. It’s about residence here,” Penny said in an interview.
Crass never told anyone what to do, or what to think, they just thought for themselves and took appropriate action based on the ramifications of those deep considerations. It shows in all they do. Action was a key word for them. As philosophers, poets, and punks it wasn’t ever just enough to live in an abstract world of ideals. They took measured and principled actions based on their ideas. Without these actions they wouldn’t have achieved such a cultural impact with such a long reach.
Yet Crass never wanted to become ideologues, or be anyone’s leader or guru. They had been so effective in getting their anarchist-pacifist message across the underground however that they so found themselves in a position as such.*
All their releases had a strong political voice, but by 1982 at the time of the Falklands War the voice got louder with the release of their hit single How does it feel to be the mother of a thousand dead? that attacked Margaret Thatcher’s role in the escalation of violence.
“ You never wanted peace or solution, / From the start you lusted after war and destruction. / Your blood-soaked reason ruled out other choices, /Your mockery gagged more moderate voices. / So keen to play your bloody part, so impatient that your war be fought. Iron Lady with your stone heart so eager that the lesson be taught / That you inflicted, you determines, you created, you ordered - It was your decision to have those young boys slaughtered.”
This little number sold enough copies to make the top ten chart in its week of release, but for some strange reason it didn't even appear in the top 100. It was a song that made the band enemies of both the political left and right. It even got discussed in the House of Commons. Alongside their benefit concert in support of striking miners and CND, Crass came under increasing scrutiny from powers of the state including MI5.
They didn’t play gigs to make money or to gain fame but as a way to raise money or awareness for various causes. In the last month of 1982, to prove "that the underground punk scene could handle itself responsibly when it had to and that music really could be enjoyed free of the restraints imposed upon it by corporate industry" they helped co-ordinate a 24-hour squat in the empty west London Zig Zag club. The following two years Crass were part of the Stop the City actions co-ordinated by London Greenpeace foreshadowing the anti-globalisation rallies of the early 21st century. At this point members of the band were starting to have doubts about their commitment to pacifism and non-violence. The lyrics found in the bands last single expressed their support for the actions and the questioning of their own values.
“Pacified. Classified / Keep in line. You're doing fine / Lost your voice? There ain't no choice Play the game. Silent and tame / Be the passive observer, sit back and look / At the world they destroyed and the peace that they took / Ask no questions, hear no lies / And you'll be living in the comfort of a fool's paradise / You're already dead, you're already dead.”
The song showcased the growing political disagreements within the group, as explained by Rimbaud; "Half the band supported the pacifist line and half supported direct and if necessary violent action. It was a confusing time for us, and I think a lot of our records show that, inadvertently". The band had become darkly introspective and was starting to lose sight of the positive stance they had started out with.
Add to this the continuing pressures from their activities. Conservative Party MP Timothy Eggar was attempting to prosecute them under the UK's Obscene Publications Act for their single, "How Does It Feel..." The band already had a hefty backload of legal expenses incurred for the obscenity prosecutions against their feminist album Penis Envy, that critiqued, among many other things, the sexual theories of Freud.
“We found ourselves in a strange and frightening arena. We had wanted to make our views public, had wanted to share them with like minded people, but now those views were being analysed by those dark shadows who inhabited the corridors of power…We had gained a form of political power, found a voice, were being treated with a slightly awed respect, but was that really what we wanted? Was that what we had set out to achieve all those years ago?”
Combined with exhaustion and the pressures of living and operating together, it all took its toll. On 7 July 1984, the band played a benefit gig at Aberdare, Wales, for striking miners, and on the return trip guitarist N. A. Palmer announced that he intended to leave the group. This confirmed Crass's previous intention to quit in the symbolically charged year of 1984. So they retired the band.
Yet, in spite of all that Dial House remains to this day and members of Crass have worked together on and off in various configurations over the intervening years.
*In writing this I struggled with the idea of using them as a model for a style of green wizardry. If there is no authority but yourself, as they have so often said, than that means they are not authorities, except for themselves and their own business. I try to look at them as peers who have done some things I find to be noble and worthy of considered emulation, not blind following.
.:. 23 .:. 73 .:. 93 .:.
Read the other entries in the Down Home Punk series.
1973 marked a turning point for the future trajectory of Dial House and those who made a home there. It all began when Phillip Russell arrived. Even by crazy freewheeling hippie standards, he was an eccentric. Russell went by a number of aliases, his most famous being Wally Hope. According to Nigel Ayers the use of the name ‘Wally’ by hippies “had come from an early seventies festival in-joke, when the call `Wally!' and `Where's Wally?' would go round at nightfall. It may have been the name of a lost sound engineer at the first Glastonbury festival, or a lost dog at the 1969 Isle of Wight festival. There have been other suggestions for its origins, but it was a regular shout at almost any festival event.”[i]
From what I’ve read of the man it seems that one thing Phillip Russell had was a heart full of hope, for the earth and its people. It thus seems fitting he called himself Wally Hope. Just as his heart was filled and brimming, so his head was full of ideas.
One of his ideas was to take back the Stonehenge monument for the people of Britain, and he planned to do it by staging a Free Festival there. Wally thought Dial House would be the perfect HQ for his nascent operation. By that time Penny Rimbaud and Wally had become fast friends and Rimbaud was quickly recruited for the project, leading him to become a co-founder of the fest. Despite significant backlash from the authorities, whom the hippies and proto punks thumbed their noses at, Wally’s inspiration and dedication led to the first Stonehenge Free Festival in 1974.
In The Last of the Hippies, Rimbaud’s book about Russell and the events surrounding the first few years of the festival he writes of his motivation in helping Russell see his vision come to be. “We shared Phil’s disgust with ‘straight’ society, a society that puts more value on property than people, that respects wealth more than it does wisdom. We supported his vision of a world where people took back from the state what the state had stolen from the people. Squatting as a political statement has its roots in that way of thought. Why should we have to pay for what is rightfully ours? Whose world is this? Maybe squatting Stonehenge wasn’t such a bad idea.”
That first year the gathering was small, and the gathered multi-subcultural tribe lived in an improvised fort around the ancient monument. It was essentially a megalithic squat. Expecting to be turned out by the System, the squatters had all previously agreed that when the authorities tried to remove them they would only answer to the name Wally. The Department of the Environment who were the keepers of Stonehenge issued the ‘wallies’ what amounted to an eviction notice: they were told to clear off and keep off. When the London High Courts tried to bring the people who had squatted at Stonehenge to trial they were faced with the absurdity of the names on the summons papers: Willy Wally, Sid Wally, Phil Wally and more. The newspapers had a heyday with the trials, and in a mercurial manner helped to spread word of what had happened, priming the pump and setting things into motion for another, bigger, Stonehenge Free Festival the next year. The Wallies lost the court trial against them but as Wally Hope said, they had really “won” the day.
An article from the August 13, 1974 Times has it thus, “A strange hippie cult calling themselves 'Wallies' claim God told them to camp at Stonehenge. The Wallies of Wiltshire turned up in force at the High Court today. There was Kris Wally, Alan Wally, Fritz Wally, Sir Walter Wally, Wally Egypt and a few other wandering Wallys. The sober calm of the High Court was shattered as the Wallies of Stonehenge sought justice. A lady Wally called Egypt with bare feet and bells on her ankles blew soap bubbles in the rarefied legal air and knelt to meditate. Sir Walter Wally wore a theatrical Elizabethan doublet with blue jeans and spoke of peace and equality and hot dogs. Kevin Wally chain-smoked through a grotesque mask and gave the victory sign to embarrassed pin-striped lawyers. And tartan-blanketed Kris Wally – ‘My mates built Stonehenge’ - climbed a lamp-post in the Strand outside the Law Courts and stopped bemused tourists in their tracks.
The Wallies (motto `Everyone's a Wally: Everyday's a Sun Day') - made the pilgrimage to the High Court to defend what was their squatter right to camp on Stonehenge. . . the Department of the Environment is bringing an action in the High Court to evict the Wallies from the meadow, a quarter of a mile from the sarsen circle of standing stones, which is held by the National Trust on behalf of the nation. The document, delivered by the Department to the camp is a masterpiece of po-faced humour, addressed to ‘one known as Arthur Wally, another known as Philip Wally, another known as Ron Wally and four others each known as Wally’.
For instance, paragraph seven begins resoundingly: ‘There were four male adults in the tent and I asked each one in turn his name. Each replied `I'm Wally’'. There are a soft core of about two dozen, peace-loving, sun worshipping Wallies - including Wally Woof the mongrel dog. Hitch-hikers thumbing their way through Wiltshire from Israel, North America, France, Germany and Scotland have swollen their numbers. Egypt Wally wouldn't say exactly where she was from - only that she was born 12,870 years ago in the cosmic sun and had a certain affinity with white negative. Last night they were squatting on the grass and meditating on the news.”
[i] See: WHERE'S WALLY? a personal account of a multiple-use-name entanglement
by Nigel Ayers https://www.earthlydelights.co.uk/netnews/wally.html Nigel Ayers was a regular attendee at the Stonehenge Free Festival. He later went on to found the influential, multiple-genre band, Nocturnal Emissions. Nigel’s explorations of Britain’s sacred and mythic landscape, and megalithic sites, can see and heard throughout his body of work.
If the druid hippie punks were the winners in the eyes of the public, the forces and people at play within the State were sore from the egg thrown on their face by the media. Someone had to be taught a lesson.
In 1975 preparations for the next iteration of the Festival began and the counterculture rallied around the cause. Word of mouth spread it around the underground and handbills and flyers had been printed up in the Dial House studio for further dissemination. Things were shaping up for it to be a success. In May before the second festival was to be launched Russel went off on a jaunt to Cornwall to rest for a spell in his tepee before it began. He left in good spirits and high health. These activities weren’t going unnoticed by the State and the people involved in them unwatched.
Only a few days later he had gotten arrested, sectioned and incarcerated in the psyche ward for possession of three tabs of LSD. It just so happened that the police mounted a raid on a squat he had been staying in for the night. The cops claimed they were looking for an army deserter. Wally somewhat fit the description of “the deserter” because he had taken to wearing an eclectic mixture of middle-eastern military uniforms and Scottish tartans. When they searched his coat they found the contraband substance and nabbed him. Of course no one had really been trailing him, no one knew who it really was: the guy who’d made the British courts look like fools when prosecuting the hippies who had staged the Stonehenge coup. Upon his arrest Wally was refused bail, kept in prison, given no access to phone or the ability to write letters to his friends. His father was dead and his sister and mother had cut ties with him.
Held against his will in a psychiatric hospital, no one in Dial House saw him until a month later when they finally learned of his predicament. When they did manage to visit him he was a changed man. He had lost weight, was nervous and hesitant in his speech, and was always on the lookout for authorities. After their first visit they attempted to secure his release looking first to do so in a way that was legal. When they hit the blockades set in place by the System they hatched an escape plan but the psychiatric drugs Wally was being fed and injected with had taken a toll on all aspects of his health. To execute their plan would have caused him more damage. Rimbaud and the other plotters weren’t sure if he could physically and psychologically cope with an escape that would place him under further strain and demands. So they had to let it go, and leave he was, even though their hearts were tortured by this decision.
Meanwhile the second Stonehenge festival went on whilst the visionary who had instigated it was suffering the side effects of modecate injections. This time thousands of people had turned up for it, whereas the first year estimates were in the realm of a few hundred to five hundred attendees. This time the authorities were powerless to stop the gathering.
Eventually Wally Hope was let go, but the prescription drug treatment the authorities had forced him to take while on the inside had taken their toll. He was in a bad way, incapacitated, zombie zonked on government sanctioned psych meds. Three weeks later he was dead. The official verdict was suicide from sleeping pills, but Rimbaud disputed this, and delved into his own investigation of the matter over the next year. Later he wrote about his friend and the case and concluded that Russel had been assassinated by the state.[i]
Other’s aren’t quite so sure and see his death as existing more in the grey area of the acid casualty. Certainly the System pumping him full of drugs had done him no good. It is hard to know how his own previous and pre-prison profligate experimentation with psychedelics precipitated his decline.
Nigel Ayers who attended the festival in the years ’74, ‘75, ’76 witnessed the buildup of the legend surrounding Wally Hope. He writes of him, “I last saw Russell, seeming rather subdued, in 1975, at the Watchfield Free Festival.[ii] A few weeks later I saw a report in the local paper that he had died in mysterious circumstances. The next year at the Stonehenge festival, a whisper went round that someone had turned up with the ashes from Wally's cremation. At midday, within the sarsen circle, Sid Rawle said a few mystical words over a small wooden box and a bunch of us scattered Wally's mortal remains over the stones. I took a handful of ashes out to sprinkle on the Heel stone, and as I did so, a breeze blew up and I got a bit of Wally in my eye.”
[i] Footnote: All of this is detailed in Rimbaud’s book The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance. It was first published in 1982 in conjunction with the Crass record Christ: The Album.
[ii] This would have been shortly after his release from psychiatric confinement.
Punks weren’t the first subculture to cram a bunch of bodies into a house to share chores, living expenses and cut costs while working on projects they loved and do things they needed to do to survive. While various quasi-communal living arrangements have been enjoyed down the centuries in various forms, we only have to travel back in time to the late 1930’s and early 40’s to see the dream of a shared house established among the first nerds of science fiction fandom. Yes, I’m talking about Slan Shacks.
But what the heck is a Slan Shack anyway? The name Slan came from the novel of the same name by A.E. van Vogt, first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940 and later published as a hardcover by Arkham House in 1946.[i] In the story Slans are super intelligent evolved humans in possession of psychic abilities, a high degree of stamina, strength, speed and “nerves of steel”. Named after their alleged creator, Samuel Lann, when a Slan gets ill or injured they go into an automatic healing trance until their powers are recovered.
SF heads came up with the slogan “Fans are Slans” after Vogt’s book came out as a way of expressing their perceived superiority, greater intelligence and imaginative ability over non-science fiction readers, so called “mundanes”. Though some considered this to be elitist, others just thought it was a natural reaction against the derogatory way science fiction and its fans were often treated by those who thought the pulps were trash literature. Later, when groups of fans and aspiring SF writers started living together as a way to share expenses, the homes were named Slan Shacks.
According to the science fiction Fancyclopedia its “a tongue-in-cheek reference to Deglerism, which came to mean any household with two or more unrelated fans (or, provided three or more fans were involved, could include married couples).” The Fancyclopedia goes on to say, “Although many early New York fans, attempting to economize while seeking a pro career, shared apartments in the Big Apple, the first Slan Shack so dubbed came into being in late 1943 in Battle Creek, Michigan; it lasted only two years, breaking up in September 1945 when its occupants moved to California, but gave its name to the practice. The best known fans of the ‘original’ Slan Shack included E. E. Evans, Walt Liebscher, Jack Wiedenbeck and Al & Abby Lu Ashley.”[ii]
The Slan Shack or the idea of it if not the name, had actually been around a bit earlier than this, since 1938. One such group was the Galactic Roomers, a pun from the name of SF club the Galactic Roamers based in Michigan and centered around the work of writer E. E. “Doc” Smith. The idea was basically the same as a punk house, a place where science fiction fans could share the costs and loads of living, bum around and off each other, store their collections of books and pulp magazines, and decorate the place as they pleased. Other shacks group up out of fandom as well and these included, the Flat in London, England, then the Futurian House and in 1943 the Slan Shack itself. The name stuck for these dens of high geekdom.
The punk movement evolved out of and in retaliation to the hippie subculture, and the punk house is similar to the crash pads of the 1960’s. Andy Warhol’s Factory was a foundational precursor and model for the punk house as it developed in New York City. Across the pond in Essex the Dial House formed in the late 60’s later to become the birthplace and home of the band Crass. I consider Dial House even more than the Factory to be one of the foundational templates of the punk house. It still exists today. The Positive Force house in Arlington, Virginia served as a locus for the Washington D.C. hardcore and straight edge scene of the mid-80’s. The alternative art and collaborative space ABC No Rio grew out of the squatter scene taking place in New York’s Lower East. Taking a detailed look at each of these places will give insights into what has been done, and what is possible. Let’s start with Dial House.
[i] Slan by A.E. van Vogt, 1946: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slan
[ii] See Fancyclopedia 3: http://fancyclopedia.org/slan-shack
Though the punk house is especially suited for urban areas, especially when groups of individuals take over an abandoned building or spaces to homestead, the principal may also be applied to a home on a piece of property in the country. The rambling farm cottage that became Dial House was originally built in the 16th century. Set on the idyllic land of Epping Forest in south-west Essex, England, one could easily imagine it as a haven for hippies and others in the back to earth crowd. But punks? Dial house was launched in 1967 and had been heavily influenced by the hippie subculture. In the book Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture, Jon Savage described punk as bricolage, combing and mixing and blending together elements from all the previous youth culture in the industrialized West going back to WWII, and as he says, it was all “stuck together with safety pins.”[i] Various philosophies and artistic styles that could more broadly be described as bohemian were all collaged together by the nascent punk rockers. Anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor was taken and glued to something that had been dumpster dived from somewhere else.
Dial House was an alembic for this yeasty form of cultural fermentation and a variety of influences were baked into its foundation when they first started launching artistic spores out into the world in 1967. The building itself was the former home of Primrose McConnell, a tenant farmer and the author of The Agricultural Notebook (1883), a standard reference work for the European farming industry. By the late 60s the property had sat derelict, its gardens overgrown with brambles, and was ripe to be taken over by some starving artists who needed a place to set up shop.
It began with resident Penny “Lapsang” Rimbaud. Penny is a writer, artist, philosopher, musician and jazz aficionado who at the time was working as a lecturer in an art school. Two other teachers joined him on the property and they started working on making improvements, making the cottage livable and the land workable. They were able to sublet the property from an adjacent farm with minimal rent due to the amount of sweat equity they were putting in to make a perfect domicile for the wayward.
By 1970 Dial House had become something of a bohemian salon. Creative thinkers of various stripes were attracted by the atmosphere Rimbaud and his cohorts had started to create. Seeing the possibilities afforded by low rent and collaboration Penny decided to quit his job in order to expand on the further potentials for developing a self-sufficient lifestyle free from the time constraints the cramping day job. He also wanted the place to be a free space open to anyone and everyone. Rimbaud said that Dial House would operate with an “open door, open heart” policy. To that end all the locks were removed from all of the doors. Anyone who wants to drop in and stay may do so, and is welcomed, though they are encouraged to help out with the chores.
Penny writes of his motivations, “I was fortunate enough to have found a large country house at very low rent, and felt I wanted to share my luck. I had wanted to create a place where people could get together to work and live in a creative atmosphere rather than the stifling, inward looking family environments in which most of us had been brought up. Within weeks of opening the doors, people started turning up out of nowhere. Pretty soon we were a functioning community.
… I had opened up the house to all-comers at a time when many others were doing the same. The so-called ‘Commune Movement’ was the natural result of people like myself wishing to create lives of cooperation, understanding and sharing. Individual housing is one of the most obvious causes for the desperate shortage of homes. Communal living is a practical solution to the problem. If we could learn to share our homes, maybe we could learn to share our world. That is the first step towards a state of sanity.”[ii]
The visual artist, print maker and skilled gardener Gee Vaucher soon joined the household to become its most long-term resident besides Rimbaud himself. The ground floor of Dial House transformed into a shared studio space while the upper rooms were reserved for accommodations. Later a couple of trailers were added to the grounds to accommodate the constant influx of visitors. At this point the house became an ever-shifting interzone populated by artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers who spent their time working on projects and helping to run the house and garden. The garden itself was run on organic principles, guided by Vaucher’s green thumb and intuition about plants. Under her guidance they were also able to set up a cottage industry producing small batch herbal remedies. The place was beginning to develop its own home economy.
With all of the life force bubbling up in the garden, and the creative passions of the visitors and long term residents stewing in the studio, it wasn’t long before new collaborative projects were created. Vaucher and Rimbaud had already been working together as members of the Stanford Rivers Quartet, where they explored the relationship between sound and imagery. The group found its inspiration from the Bauhaus art school, jazz and classical composers such as Lucio Berio and Edgar Varese.[iii]
In 1971 the Stanford Rivers Quartet expanded into an ensemble that sometimes consisted of up to a dozen players and changed their name to Exit. Even more artists and filmmakers got involved to put together “happenings" as was the spirit of the day, and these spawned into circus like proportions. The operational strategy of Exit was guerilla. Unannounced they would turn up at venues to play their music. How this fared for the audience, I’m not sure, but it was a strategy for getting their material out into the world without relying on traditional booking methods.
Around this time Dial House members became involved with various festivals including ICES 72. Exit played at the fest and several related events were held at the House itself. Vaucher, Rimbaud and the other residents proved critical to its success and organization, producing and printing flyers in their print room, and helping the founder Harvey Matusow with the programming. One of the connections they made via ICES was with filmmaker Anthony McCall with whom they would continue to work. The print shop at Dial House became an integral part of their home economy and out of it was born Exitstencil Press.
A collective home with a print shop is potentially a viable way to earn an income, or at least print the kind of things you would like to view and read yourself and to circulate within the subculture. Other homespun efforts may be more or less viable as part of the home economy. Enterprising punks and science fiction freaks will find a way to get it done.
[i] Teenage: the Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage, Viking, New York, 2007
[ii] The Last of the Hippies: an Hysterical Romance by Penny Rimbaud, PM Press, 2015.
[iii] The Story of Crass by George Berger, PM Press, 2009.
Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music
Back in 1966 Boulez had proposed a total reorganization of French musical life to André Malraux, the Minister of Culture. Malraux rebuffed Boulez when he appointed Marcel Landowski, who was much more conservative in his tastes and programs, as head of music at the Ministry of Culture. Boulez, who had been known for his tendency to express himself as an epic jerk, was outraged. In an article he wrote for the Nouvel Observateur he announced that he was "going on strike with regard to any aspect of official music in France."
As author John Michael Greer has noted, in French intellectual life, the pose of the philosopher, artist or thinker who dismisses the work of everyone else with a sneer is a familiar pose, and Boulez was accustomed to playing out this role, in his voluminous writings, talks, artistic rivalries with his contemporaries and barbed wire criticisms designed to prick at the flesh of the musicians he worked with. The French knew not to take this game too seriously, whereas Americans tended to be put off him and have their feelings hurt.
When confronted about this aspect of his reputation later in life Boulez said, "Certainly I was a bully. I'm not ashamed of it at all. The hostility of the establishment to what you were able to do in the Forties and Fifties was very strong. Sometimes you have to fight against your society."
So when Boulez was asked by the current French president Georges Pompidou to set up an institute dedicated to researching acoustics, music, and computer technology, he was quick to recant his strike with regards to official music in France, accept the offer, and get busy with work. This was the beginning of the Institut de recherche et coordination acoustique/musique, IRCAM. The space was built next to, and linked institutionally to the Centre George Pomidou, official work started in 1973.
Boulez took inspiration from the Bauhaus and used them as a model for the institute. The Bauhaus had been an interdisciplinary art school that provided a meeting ground for artists and scientists, and this was the aspect he sought to emulate. His vision for the institute was to bring together musicians, composers, scientists and developers of technology.
In a publicity piece for IRCAM he wrote, “The creator’s intuition alone is powerless to provide a comprehensive translation of musical invention. It is thus necessary for him to collaborate with the scientific research worker… The musician must assimilate a certain scientific knowledge, making it an integral part of his creative imagination...at educational meetings scientists and musician’s will become familiar with one another’s point of view and approach. In this way we hope to forge a kind of common language that hardly exists at present.”
To bring his vision into reality he needed the help of those at the forefront of computer music. To that end he brought Max Mathews on board as a scientific advisor to the IRCAM project, and he served in that capacity for six years between 1974 and 1980. Mathews old friend Jean-Claude Risset was hired to direct IRCAM’s computer department, which he did between 1975 and 1979. The work that their colleague John Chowning was doing back in California was crucial to the success of the institute and he was tapped as a further resource.
The Center for Computer Research and Musical Acoustics
Putting together IRCAM was a project that went on for almost a decade before it was fully up and running, and from 1970 to 1977 most of the work done was the preliminary planning, organization, and building of the vessel that would house the musical laboratory. It did not have the advantage of being part of an existing institution, such as the BBC or the West German Radio. Everything, including the space, had to be built from scratch. There were several existing templates for electronic music and research that IRCAM could have followed and it chose the American template, modeled on the work done at Bell Labs, when Max Mathews was asked to be the scientific director of IRCAM in 1975. He in turn took the advanced work with computer music being done at the Center for Computer Research and Musical Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford as his model and resource for state of the art computer music, based in no small part on his own MUSIC programs.
John Chowning had founded the CCRMA at Stanford officially in 1974, though the basis for it had already begun inside of SAIL. The other founding members were Leland Smith, John Grey, Andy Moore, and Loren Rush. The first course in computer composition had already been given at Stanford in 1969, taught by Chowning, Max Mathews, Leland Smith and George Gucker. Having shared the space and valuable computer time with other researchers at SAIL it was soon time for those interested in the specifics of composing with computers to have their own department at Stanford.
In 1975 Boulez spent two weeks at the CCRMA studying what they were getting up to. The connection continued, and there was a lot of contact between the staff at IRCAM. One of the results was that the computer systems used at each ended up being compatible with each other. A lot of American computer workers ended up in France helping to set up IRCAMs initial system until the French had enough people trained in the technology themselves. There was also extensive back and forth visiting between CCRMA and IRCAM staff. James Moorer did a residence, and Chowning went on to become a guest artist there in 1978, 1981, and in 1985.
Chowning composed his piece Phoné at CCRMA but the piece later had its premiere at IRCAM. In Phoné Chowning expanded upon his previous compositions in FM synthesis to give the work the feeling and texture of the human voice. It came together from work he started doing with his student Michael McNabb on using FM synthesis to produce vocal sounds in 1978. Chowning went to work at IRCAM in late 1979 and stayed into the next year, where he stayed until early 1980. While at IRCAM Chowning was shown the work of Johann Sundberg, and his research into vocal formants. This in turn led to the creation of algorithms used for vocal synthesis. The work Sundberg was doing went on to be the seed from which the CHANT program grew.
All of this work led to Chowning seizing on the goal of synthesizing vocal sounds from computers that mimicked the human voice as close as possible. A number of characteristics particular to speech needed to be implemented to deliver the goods, and these marked difficult technical hurdles. Some of the people who worked CCRMA and IRCAM were perceptual scientists, and Chowning noticed also that there was an indeterminate perceptual aspect with regards to the timbres of voice and instrument. One of the sounds he was experimenting with was that of a bell, and he became fascinated with transforming that bell sound into other sounds.
His piece Phoné was written with all of this in his mind. The title comes from the ancient Greek word for “voice,” the same word used to denote one of the main tools in telecommunications. Using FM synthesis Chowning was able to transform the voice of the bell into a number of different timbres, including that of a human voice with simulated formants.
Intercontemporary Underground Music
Much of the space for IRCAM was built below ground, beneath the Place Igor-Stravinsky, where the boisterous noise of the city streets above does not penetrate. The underground laboratories were first inaugurated 1978 and contains eight recording studios, and eight laboratories, an anechoic chamber, plus various offices and departments spaces. Though it has since be reorganized with the passing of the years, it was first arranged into five departments, each under its own composer-director, with Boulez as the tutelary head. These departments were Electro-Acoustics, Pedagogy, Computers, Instruments and Voice, as well as a department called Diagonal that coordinated between the other departments, who for the most part followed their own research and creative interests. Lucio Berio headed up the Electro-Acoustic department at the beginning.
The piece de resistance at IRCAM is the large Espace de Projection, also known as Espro, a modular concert hall whose acoustics can be changed according to the temperament and design of the composers and musicians working there. The Espro space was created under the direction of Boulez and features a system of “boxes in boxes” to create the variable acoustics. When the space was first opened Boulez said of it was “really not a concert hall, but it can project sound, light, audiovisual events, all possible events that are not necessarily related to traditional instruments.” The position of the ceilings can be moved to change the volume of the room. The walls and ceilings have panels that are mode of rotatable prismatic modules that each have three faces, one for absorbing, another reflecting, and one for diffusing sound. These are called periacts and can be changed on the spot.
Boulez was busy as all get out in the seventies. If developing IRCAM and conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1971 to 1975, and the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1978, was not enough, he also founded the Ensemble intercontemporain (EIC) in 1976. The EIC was built up with support from Minister of Culture Michel Guy, and the British arts administrator Nicholas Snowman. EIC filled a gap in contemporary music by providing an ensemble available to play chamber music. He also wanted to cultivate a group of musicians dedicated to performing contemporary music. EIC would have a strong working relationship with IRCAM so that musicians were available to play compositions made in conjunction with the institute inside the Espro, as well as tour and make recordings. This of course included Boulez’s own compositions as he had the energy to return to writing music as his conductive activities slowed down.
Though Boulez had made a piece of musique concrète at GRM, and had experimented with tape music with Poesie Pour Pouvoir, these were not his main interests in avantgarde music. What concerned Boulez was the live transformation of acoustic sound electronically. He felt that recordings, played in a concert hall, was like going to listen to a dead piece of music. The live transmformation of live sound was what held promise. While the possibility for the live transformation of acoustic sounds had been explored by Stockhausen and Cage, these did not have the same precision that was now available with the computers and programs created at CCRMA and IRCAM.
Répons was composed in various versions between 1980–1984 once IRCAM was up and running and his conductive activity had slowed enough to give him time to compose. The instrumental ensemble is placed in the middle of the hall. Six soloists are place around the audience at various points. These include two pianos, harp, cimbalom, vibraphone and glockenspiel or xylophone, and it these instruments that give Répons much of its color.
The instrumental music gets transformed by computer electronics and projected through the space. The harp, vibraphone and piano create glittering sparkles that illuminate the space fulfilling Boulez’s dream of the live electronic transformation of acoustic sound.
Once IRCAM got into a groove it started pushing out a steady stream of compositions, papers, and software from its many scientific and artistic residents and collaborators. Boulez’s vision of a “general school or laboratory” where scientists and sound artists mixed and mingled had come to fruition. One of its most famous outputs is the software suite Max/MSP.
Today the MUSIC I software Max wrote through many versions lives on in the software suite of Max / MSP. Named in honor of Max Mathews, the software is a powerful visual programming language that is now functional for multimedia performance that has grown out of its musical core. The program has been alive, well and growing for more than thirty years and has been used by composers, performers, software designers, researchers, and artists to create recordings, performances, and installations. The software is designed and maintained by the company Cycling ’74.
Building off the gains in musical software developed by Mathews, Miller Smith Puckette (MSP) started to work on a program originally called The Patcher at IRCAM in 1985. This first version for Macintosh had a graphical interface that allowed users to create interactive scores. It wasn’t yet powerful enough to do real time synthesis. Instead it used MIDI and similar protocols to send commands to external sound hardware.
Four years later Max/FTS (Faster Than Sound) was developed at IRCAM. This version could be ported to the IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation (ISPW) for the NeXT computer system. This time around it could do real time synthesis using an internal hardware digital signal processor (DSP) making it a forerunner to the MSP extensions that would later be added to Max. 1989 was also the year the software was licensed to Opcode who promptly launched a commercial version at the beginning of the next decade.
Opcode held onto the program until 1997. During those years a talented console jockey named David Zicarelli further extended and developed the promise of Max. Yet Opcode wanted to cancel their run with the software. Zicarelli new it had even further potential. So he acquired the rights and started his own company called Cycling ’74. Zicarelli’s timing proved to be fortuitous as Gibson Guitar ended up buying Opcode, and then after they owned it for a year, ceasing its existence. Such is the fabulous world of silicon corporate buy outs.
Miller Smith Puckette had in the meantime released the independent and open-source composition tool Pure Data (Pd). It was a fully redesigned tool that still fell within the same tradition as his earlier program for IRCAM. Zicarelli, sensing that a fruitful fusion could be made manifest, released Max/MSP in 1997, the MSP portion being derived from Puckette’s work on PureData. The two have been inseparable ever since.
The achievement meant that Max was now capable of real time manipulation of digital audio signals sans dedicated DSP hardware. The reworked version of the program was also something that could work on a home computer or laptop. Now composers could use this powerful tool to work in their home studios. The musical composition software that had begun on extensive and expensive mainframes was now available to those who were willing to pay the entry fee. You didn’t need the cultural connections it took to work at places like Bell Labs or IRCAM. And if you had a computer but couldn’t afford the commercial Max/MSP you could still download Pd for free. The same is true today.
Extension packs were now being written by other companies, contributing to the ecology around Max. In 1999 the Netochka Nezvanova collective released a suite of externals that added extensive real-time video control to Max. This made the program a great resource for multimedia artists. Various other groups and companies continued to tinker and add things on.
It got to the point where Max Mathews himself, well into his golden years, was learning how to use the program named after him. Mathews has received many accolades and appointments for his work. He was a member of the IEEE, the Audio Engineering Society, the Acoustical Society of America, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He held a Silver Medal in Musical Acoustics from the Acoustical Society of America, and the Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et Lettres, République Française.
Max Mathews died of old age at 84 due to complications from pneumonia on April 21, 2011 in San Francisco. He was 84. He was survived by his wife, Marjorie, his three sons and six grandchildren.
The first Digital Signal Processing (DSP) workstation computer, the 4A, was built at IRCAM. The computer was used by Xavier Rodet, Yves Potard and Jean-Baptiste Barrière to create the CHANT program that was originally made for the analysis and synthesis of the singing voice. They developed an algorithm known as Fonction d’Onde Formantique (FOF) to emulate the human voice. By using four or five FOF generators in parallel the program is able to model the formants created by the human vocal tract. The flexibility of their program also allows for the synthesis of instrumentals sounds and noises, such as those of bells and cymbals among many others.
CHANT’s creators made subprograms to use with CHANT for specific types of singing or utterance, such as bel canto voice for western style soprano singing, and Tibetan chant. In the bel canto subprogram they used a phase vocoder to analyze the same pitch as interpreted by a number of different singers. With this data they were able to obtain the precise frequencies of the first eight formants used by the singer. In writing the code for the algorithm they kept the frequencies of the last six formants. For the first two they revealed a relationship between the frequencies of the formants and the pitch of the note that was sung. They next created a rule where the first and second formants were placed on the first and second harmonics except in cases where the frequency obtained is below a fixed threshold. This allowed them to create uniform vocal color over a range of two octaves. Next they programmed other rules for various parameters of singing.
For the Tibetan chant subprogram their main concern was to develop a system for voice emulation that accounted for noise and strange harmonics, in contrast to the typical voice of the trained western singer who tries to eliminate randomness and regional accents. When using CHANTS basic presets, noise is controlled by rules that are dependent on the formant. For the Tibetan subprogram noise was approached from the random aspects microfluctuations within the fundamental and frequencies of the formant. For timbre they added separate amplitude controls for the even and odd harmonics with additional envelopes for random variation. They also tooled the articulation, modeling the consonants and constructing them in “the form of transitions from one vowel to another, affecting the amplitude, the fundamental, and the formant trajectories, that is, the frequency of each formant as a function of time.” They used the length of phonemes, fundamental frequency, vibrato and vocal effort (or the way a person speaks to another based on proximity to each other) to create rules around rhythm and stress. All of this was done in the effort to synthesize a non-western style of vocal art.
CHANT was equipped with a number of basic parameters for relative ease of use, but those who sought total compositional control could use an extended version of the program that allowed for different models to be implemented, including the non-vocal models. CHANT began with analyzing and mimicking vocal behavior, but was capable of going beyond vocal behavior into other areas of sound, including that of granular textures that opened up a variety of possibilities for spectral exploration.
The CHANT team created a number of different models to encompass all the traditional instruments and some non-traditional. With the models in place, composers can work with these definitions to create “imaginary hybrid instruments” that give them and listeners a chance to explore new timbral spaces. Some of these possibilities offered by CHANT have been explored by a number of different composers including Jonathan Harvey, Jukka Tiensuu and Tod Machover among a number of others.
Jonathan Harvey’s Ritual Melodies
Jonathan Harvey was a British composer born in 1939 who liked to jump across the boundaries of genre within contemporary classical music. He had begun his studies with Benjamin Britten who advised him to learn also from Erwin Stein and Hans Keller. Like many other composers in his general age group, he fell under the spell of Karlheinz Stockhausen and attended his composition courses at Darmstadt in 1966 and 1967. In 1969 he got a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton University where he was able to study under Milton Babbitt.
The Baleriac islands have a history of being good for music, and Harvey wrote his 1973 piece Inner Light I, while staying in Menorca. It is an electroacoustic work for seven instruments and tape dedicated to Benjamin Britten on the occasion of his 60th birthday. He realized the tape portion when sequestered away inside the studios of Swedish Radio, Stockholm and at University College in Cardiff, Wales. This electronic portion features ring modulation and varispeed tape.
Unlike many of his fellow composers on the experimental end of the spectrum, some of Harvey’s work are played with frequency, rather than just being concerned with frequency. This is in part due to his early religious affiliations with the Church of England, and his own time as a chorister at St. Michaels, Tenbury. Harvey loved choral music and wrote pieces for the British cathedral choirs. His I, Love the Lord (1976) and The Angels (1992) are thus the most recorded and performed of his music.
Harvey followed the path of many other 20th century composers and went on to teach composition, working at Southampton and Sussex Universities, while doing stints as a guest lecturer in the United States. He was happy to encourage his students, and help them develop in their own ways, rather than demanding anyone adhere to a particular school of musical thought. He hadn’t, so why should they?
Throughout his career he would flit between electroacoustic works, purely electronic pieces, and orchestral pieces that utilized live electronics. A number of works he wrote concerned the nature of speech, whether sung, spoken, or synthesized and its relationship to song.
Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco is a short work for eight-channel tape. It uses concrète sounds of his son singing, who was then a chorister in the Winchester Choir, and the recorded sounds of the largest bell of Winchester Cathedral, transformed in various ways by the use of MUSIC V and CHANT. Other synthesized sounds were also used. The piece also uses phonetics, linguistic analysis, proportions from the golden ratio, and the judicious use of spatialization and a sonorous reverb that gels it all together.
The voice of the bell is strong in this work. The title was taken from the latin words inscribed on the bell, that translate as “I lament the dead, I call the living.” The work is one of ethereal and genius and recalls the similar use of concrète voices and electronic techniques used in Gesang der Junglinge.
Like Stockhausen, Harvey was completely open about his mysticism, and his belief in spiritual realities shines through in his music. In spiritual matters he was also as eclectic as he was in his compositions. He had a pronounced interest in Eastern religions which he seemed to be as comfortable writing music about as he was within the Christian milieu.
Bhakti was written in 1982 as a commission from IRCAM and is a piece for 15 instruments and tape. The structure of the close to hour long composition is based arounds texts from the Hindu Rig Veda, which give it a meditative and contemplative aspect. Twelve short movements, each varied three times, give it thirty-six subsections, each of these defined by a certain grouping of instruments playing a particular pitch cell. Showing his serialist leanings, Bhakti explores the partials of a single pitch, a quarter-tone above G, below A440. The series are made from proportional intervals above below that frequency, with space for what Harvey calls “glossing” or allowing for improvisation in devising the pitch cells. The tape part of Bhakti was made using sounds from the instrumental ensemble mixed and transformed by the computer. At the end of each movement a quotation from the Rig Veda is heard. Harvey considered these 4,000 year old hymns “keys to consciousness.”
Harvey used synthesized voices and instruments again in his 1990 electronic piece Ritual Melodies. Realized at IRCAM with the help of Jan Vandenheede and the program Formes, which had been designed originally as Computer Assisted Composition environment for the synthesis program CHANT. Vandenheede created a number of sounds using the program. These included voices again, both western plainchant and Tibetan style chant. The other instrument sounds were all decidedly eastern, and included a Vietnamese koto, and Indian oboe, Japanse shakuhachi, and a Tibetan bell. Listening, they do not sound at all artificial. Voice synthesis had come a long way since the days of Daisy Bell. All of the instruments used are for ritual or religious purposes in different cultures, but Harvey wanted to bring them together in a way that wouldn’t normally happen real world rituals. Here Harvey composed 16 melodies that seamlessly move between the different synthesized instruments, and form an intertwined circular chain with each other when other melodies are introduced and morph into each other. He writes of the piece that, “Each melody uses the same array of pitches, which is a harmonic series omitting the lowest 5 pitches. Each interval, therefore is different from every other interval. So the piece as a whole reflects the natural acoustic structure of the instruments and voices.” The bell sounds are used to mark different
Harvey was as happy to work with traditional instruments and timbres as he was making purely electronic works or purely choral works. He was also happy to mix and match. He liked variety and drew his influences from a diverse grouping of musicians and teachers. All of these influences are present in his own diversity of work. His ability to work back and forth between modes gave him a lot of freedom, even if it made critics hard to pigeonhole his music.
Between 2005 and 2008 Jonathan Harvey was a composer in residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Three major works known together as the “Glasgow Trilogy” came out of this period. The trilogy begins with Towards a Pure Land… (2005), continues with Body Mandala (2006), and finishes with the masterpiece Speakings (2008). All three pieces combine orchestral instruments with electronics, and all three are inspired by the Buddhist side of his spiritual inclinations, but it is Speakings where Harvey once again looks into the correlations between speech and song. Within that same time span Harvey wrote Sprechgesange (2007) for Oboe, Cor Anglais and Ensemble, and it is these two pieces that we will look at here.
Harvey ties his purely instrumental piece Sprechgesange to the earlier efforts of Schoenberg and Berg by using this word as its title. Harvey’s idea for Sprechgesange came from musing on the psychological roots of speech and sound and how those are so often connected to the cooing voice and talking and singing of the mother to her baby child, who experiences these first in the womb and then as a newborn and baby in the very early process of learning to speak and sing themselves. Halfway through the piece Harvey inserts a Wagner reference. He says this is a “a moment when Parsifal 'hears' the long-forgotten voice of his dead mother call the name, his own name, that he had forgotten - an action of the shamanistic Kundry. From this awakening, this healing, comes the birth of song from the meaningless chatter of endless human discourse. 'Speech' with deep meaning...”
Speakings was commissioned in part by IRCAM and Radio France who helped with the electronic side of things, again using programs to synthesize speech. He makes use of the orchestral palette to make further voicings that mimic the utterance of phonemes, building on the techniques he had used in Sprechgesange. From the slow beginning the organic and the digital merge together into a gradual towering babble of enunciation by the pieces second movement. The tracery of vocoded signals is laced into the chaos of linguistic polyphony.
Harvey writes, “The orchestral discourse, itself inflected by speech structures, is electro-acoustically shaped by the envelopes of speech taken from largely random recordings. The vowel and consonant spectra-shapes flicker in the rapid rhythms and colours of speech across the orchestral textures. A process of 'shape vocoding', taking advantage of speech's fascinating complexities, is the main idea of this work.” Different instruments had the “shape vocoding” applied to them through the judicious use of microphones.
The third and final movement begins with bell rings and horn blasts weaving between each other in a way that is reminiscent of how mantras are intoned with full vibration. The listener is now in a sacred place, a cathedral or temple, and the voices here chant an incantatory song, along single monodic lines reverberating through space. Here we return to what Harvey says is the “womb of all speech”, the Buddhist mantra OM-AH-HUM, which in the mythology of India is said to be half-song, half-speech. This is pure speech. The original tongue. In Judaeo-Christian terms it be likened to the original language spoken by Adam and Eve, and before the time of Babel when humanities tongues were shattered and split into multiplicity.
In Buddhist mythology from India there is a notion of original, pure speech, in the form of mantras - half song, half speech. The OM-AH-HUM is said to be the womb of all speech.
Read the rest of the Radio Phonics Laboratory: Telecommunications, Speech Synthesis and the Birth of Electronic.
IRCAM, CCRMA, Intercontemporary Underground Music,
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.