Voice of the World

Our music critic Roger McKenna interviews drone vocalist Beltashazam RM At today's performance, most of the audience stayed with you. B (Laughs) Yes, they were a sympathetic group. Well, some people always leave. Two hours is a long haul for the average person. What was your impression, personally? RM At first, I wondered. How can I last through this? Then, slowly, I began to hear different layers in the sound. Almost like different melodies, short riffs. I followed them and realized I wasn't outside the sound any more, I was inside it. It was a place, like a forest or a city. There were so many things going on. Now of course I'd read some of your writings, so that probably helped. I did sort of back my way out of the sound a few times, just to get a breather. Then - back in! It was quite an adventure, really. B I had the same experience when I first heard La Monte Young and his group in 1964. He played a lot louder than I do - claimed it didn't damage his hearing. But, now he wears a hearing aid. So, you know, lots of people do, without listening to high volume music for years on end. So I don't know if that means anything. Anyway, it was extremely loud. But I toughed it out. And there were those dimensions you speak of - I heard orchestras, choruses - even though there were only four people, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela doing vocal drones, and Tony Conrad and John Cale doing drones on a viola and a violin. RM That was in New York? B Right. The Pocket Theater, on lower Third Avenue. A tiny place, maybe it could hold sixty people. The sound - the whole place, the walls, everything, was vibrating. I've never heard anything like it since. Not even my stuff - uh, a pale reflection. That event has been guiding me through all the years. It may even have been what pushed me into the Hare Krishnas, which I did a couple years after. RM You do bring Sanskrit mantras into your vocals. Are they part of the Krishna tradition? B Yes, most of them. RM Did you have any tendency toward this sort of thing earlier in your life? B I think so. I remember when I was a kid, I was just sitting in a chair at home for a long time, not doing anything. And my mother looked at me and said, "What are you doing?" And I said to her, "Feeling the blood run through my veins." Well, I was telling the truth. That was exactly what I was doing, and enjoying it very much. My poor parents! They had to put up with a lot. There was another sitting routine. It was when I was in high school. I was with some friends on the front porch of the Boudreau's house. We were talking about being able to sit still. "No, you have to move," was the general conclusion. But I disagreed. "I can sit still without moving for an hour," I said. They challenged me to do it. And I did. Sat on a chair, not moving, for an hour. It was fascinating! I was looking out at the street - it was a

busy street, Worcester Street - there was so much going on, great entertainment. I had no problem. RM Where was that? Your home town? B Yes - Grafton, Massachusetts. New England, not old England. This is my first visit here. My mother's family came from up in Yorkshire somewhere. Grafton was where the poet Frank O'Hara grew up. I used to walk by his family's house to elementary school every day. He had grown up by that time, and moved away. But I had a crush on his sister, who was maybe six years older than me. Oh, another thing I remember, when we were playing baseball, I always wanted to play center field. Do you know how a baseball field is laid out? RM Yes, from your American movies. B OK - in center field, I called it "the null point." To me it was the place where nothing happened, there was no activity, but all the game activity somehow rotated around it. It was a geometric coordinate, a still center, where I could see everything, but I was invisible. Well, that shows you how crazy I was, but that's how I made the baseball field into my kind of field. Of course I was terrified when somebody actually hit a fly ball my way. I wasn't a very good fielder. RM Well then - you were a meditator from the start. B Perhaps. There's always been, as far as I remember, my whole life, a sound in my ears. Some people would say I have tinnitus. But it's not unpleasant to me. It's a constant highfrequency chord, close to the standard piano's B Flat - F, but the fundamental is more between B Flat and B, about 1920 Hertz. And an octave twice that. The sound is always there, vibrating. I think of it as the music of my body's nervous system. In fact what you heard today was tuned to that scale, in a lower octave, but the overtones get up there and higher. RM Do you think everyone's bodies are always vibrating like that? B Oh yes. We are energy beings. If you're tuned in, you can see energy waves, like Van Gogh, you know, he painted the stars and the sun with great rolling waves of energy around them. An interesting experience I have, is seeing the magnetic patterns around street lights. Rainbow colored lines revolving around. When I lived in Washington DC I got curious about them and called up a physics teacher at a college there. I described the effect, and he said, "Oh, you must have something wrong with your eyes." Didn't get any scientific confirmation out of him! RM If you have these experiences, and there's not any current scientific explanation for them, how do you feel about other things, like, let's say, reincarnation? Do you remember anything like past lives? B Oh, I don't know if I want to get into that.

RM You said you were in the Hare Krishnas - you must have some opinion. I'm only interested because you took us back to your youth - I wonder if you could take us further back - if there was some other preparation for your involvement in droning, and the obvious spiritual component. B Hm. OK, I'll jump in. Uh, I mean, these are only impressions, you understand. Anyway, my previous life. I was a religious Jew living in Eastern Europe, a young man, very scholarly and very unhappy. I died in my twenties. Before that, I was a woman in India. That's where I got my first exposure to Chaitanyaite Vaishnavism, which is what the Hare Krishnas are. Before that, male, in some place, or plane of existence, that was extremely beautiful and filled with sensual delights - I remember women with very white skin. Before that, female, in someplace like Polynesia. I was a student of a spiritual teacher, what we would call a kahuna. Before that, I don't have any recollections - except something like an African culture... RM Nothing specifically musical. B No, and look, I just think of that as a story. Somehow to me it explains why I am the way I am. You're right, nothing especially musical there. But I don't consider what I do, to be necessarily musical. It's sound. Sound is what I'm interested in, or really, obsessed by. RM And here we come back to La Monte Young, who is clearly your mentor... B Yes. RM ...so I would like to read some passages from something he wrote way back in 1960. It's rather long - if you'll allow me B Of course. RM I've chosen five passages. He starts, "If we are really interested in learning about sounds, it seems to me that we should allow the sounds to be sounds instead of trying to force them to do things that are mainly pertinent to human existence. If we try to enslave some of the sounds and force them to obey our will, they become useless. We can learn nothing or little from them because they will simply reflect our own ideas. If, however, we go to the sounds as they exist and try to experience them for what they are - that is, a different kind of existence - then we may be able to learn something new." B Yes, you see here he's saying if we want to learn about God we have to get it from God. Our own notions have little bearing on the topic. And sound is something other than just waves of air pushing against our eardrums. There's an energy there - an energy that comes from God. RM Mm-hm. Next.

"When the sounds are very long...it can be easier to get inside of them." B I suppose that's self-evident. But really, when Young wrote that, and he was just starting to get into droning at that time, I can think of only two others who were investigating very long durations of sounds. One was the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. The other was the French artist Yves Klein, who had a performance of his "Monotone Symphony" that year, 1960. Now, I don't mean to say that there had never been drones in music anywhere before. There definitely had been. I mean, going back thousands of years we have Australians using the didgeridoo. Later we have Tibetans chanting their prayers in droning tones with overtones, and of course in India the intonation of OM and the playing of the tambura, the premier drone instrument today. The traditional music of China, Japan, Indonesia, Persia, Arabia - they all often incorporated drones as backgrounds against which a melody is played. Really, the Arabic influence on very early European music was strong, and may be the principal reason why we hear so many sustained tones, in the organum, in the cantus firmus, of medieval church music. That continued up until around 1500. Then the mechanical world asserted itself. So here come the clocks, the harpsichords, the steam engines. We don't care about eternity, we're into tick-tock, clangclang, high drama, explosive emotions, "Wellington's Victory." But as scientists probed deeper into matter and got to the atomic level, things changed. Electricity and electronics insinuated themselves into our awareness. The electrical sound environment was not so much chug-chug, as whirr, beep, hum, buzz, throb, whish, squeal - we heard new kinds of sounds. We began to hear the world differently. It happened slowly. I guess it was around 1917 or so when Arnold Schoenberg came out with his prescription for twelve-tone or serial music. You know, all twelve semitones of the chromatic scale have equal importance. Well, that means no more heaving emotive grandiosities. And all twelve semitones must be sounded before you can start the next "tone row." That flattens everything out. We're no longer looking at the figures on the field, we're looking at the whole field itself. He wanted, he said more or less, a method of composition where the twelve notes are related not to some outside foundation, but only to each other. The artistic composition is its own reference point. Just think how similar that is to Einstein's relativity theory, or the quantum mechanics that was being worked out then. Well, what Schoenberg and the other serialists of the Twentieth Century did was hardly drone music. But it was a step in that direction. They wanted to refer to something abstract, a mathematical formula, something beyond. La Monte Young was trained in that tradition, and started composing that way at first. But by the late 1950s he had been influenced by Indian and Indonesian music, and specifically by the sound of a tambura being played on a record he bought. He still uses a tambura in his concerts. RM And you play tambura - and use that electronic tambura box. B Yes. The first tambura I played was in 1966 at the original Hare Krishna center at 26 Second Avenue in New York. Another devotee, who joined before me, usually played it, but I was "second tamburist," so to speak, and when he went to India with our guru, I got to play it more. It suited me perfectly. And it does today. RM Indeed. Before we go too far afield, I'll continue with these quotes. "Sometimes when I was making a long sound...I began to feel the parts and motions of the sound more, and began to see how each sound was its own world..." "...getting inside of them to some extent so that we can experience another world." "...if one can give up a part of himself to the sound, and approach the sound as a sound, and enter the world of the sound, then the experience need not stop there but may be continued much further, and the only limits are the limits each individual sets for himself."

B OK - you can see what's going on here. Young is presenting sound as, not only as a metaphor for spirit, but he's saying sound is spirit. Sound is spiritual energy. And just as initially spiritual things can be corrupted and turn sour, so can sound, which is originally spiritual, be used for corrupt purposes. But Young wants to turn us back to considering sound in itself. Not as a vehicle for top 40 tunes or operatic arias or radio commercials. Sound as pitch alone, not as sales pitch. Pure sound is a secret garden he can venture into and discover something eternal, timeless. RM That's a significant break from most music, where time, that is tempo and rhythm, is so important. Although, there have been some composers - I think of Alan Hovhaness - who also went in that direction, to some extent - more recently, Part, Tavener... B They're all considered mystical or religious, too. RM Yes, so this abandonment of the temporal component... B Young talks about the raga form in Indian music. The first section is called alap. You've heard it, where it's extremely slow, no tabla, just a tambura and the line is carried by a sitar or sarod, whatever, or a voice, all long drawn-out tones. Young says, ah, that's as far as I want to go, just do alap, forget the rest. RM I found something Young said about the tambura. "Such is the sound of the tambura that it, of all the instruments, elicits perhaps the most profound and mysterious feeling in the listener. For me, it evokes the sensation of primordial time: OM, the creation of the universe." What do you think he means by primordial time? B When time stands still. We might live according to a different sense of time. There's one long passage of time, not cut up into many short chunks. There's only one long time, not many short times. You open up time, so there's no beginning or end. You might say there's only one wave, not many particles. A standing wave, stasis. Living that way, we're in what Young calls "the drone state of mind." RM That's a trance state, I should say. We've become familiar with music, not only from the East or Middle East, but now from the West, New Age music, some kinds of relaxation music, that induce some sort of trance state in the listener. And techno music called "trance," also. B I'd go so far as to say, that all issues from La Monte Young. A person no less than Brian Eno - I once saw a bumper sticker in the 80s that said "Brian Eno is God" - uh, he said "La Monte Young is the daddy of us all." So the whole ambient, minimalist, trance music strain comes out of Young. Even art rock. RM Art rock! Pink Floyd wouldn't have happened but for La Monte Young?

B Consider this. In 1964 John Cale was playing with Young in what Young called the Theater of Eternal Music. Then he would go play with the Velvet Undergound, where he would introduce musical practices he'd picked up from Young. I mean, dissonances, feedback, and most important, atmospheric or "field music" static instrumental passages of thick, dense clouds of sound. By 1965 the Velvet Underground was being sponsored so to speak by Andy Warhol, and a lot of people in the rock music world were listening to them. They influenced a generation of rock groups, including the Beatles, the Who, and yes, Pink Floyd and the whole art rock scene - and later, even punk rock - not so much there with their sound but their attitude. So this all came from La Monte Young. And then need I say it, but the so-called minimalists, I mean Terry Riley, who was a good friend of Young's, Philip Glass, Steve Reich... RM But Young remained completely noncommercial, even rather hermit-like, and true to his pure sound concept. I'd like to read a few more statements by him. "...what I am interested in in music is becoming a receptor for a higher state of information that can flow through me and then become physically manifest as music, which can then be experienced by people who listen to it..." "When the voice becomes perfectly in tune with the drone, with the tambura, it's like leaving the body and meeting God." "My own feeling has always been that if people aren't carried away to heaven, I'm failing. They should be moved to strong spiritual feeling." It seems clear to me that he wants to lead meditation sessions. Whereas others might use music as an aid to meditation, he's presenting his music as the object of meditation. B Sure, it's meditation music. But again, not really music, but heightened sound. Or a music where the emphasis is really less on the "art-object" itself, and more on the effect it has on the listener. Specifically, is it helping people achieve wholeness. RM I think we've paid enough attention to your main source of inspiration. Your own work is quite similar to Young's, but with new elements. Perhaps the major difference, from the example of today's performance, is your use of vocal harmonics or overtones. B When I heard David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir in the 80s, I knew I wanted to learn how to do that - the overtone singing. About ten years later, Jonathan Goldman came along, with his very helpful instructions about the technique. Then I paid more attention to the harmonics produced by my tambura. I added those Roland guitar amps you saw, with their effects, and a Boss digital delay, and the electronic tambura, and that's pretty much it for now. I've had a lot of fun working out names for all this. The rig I've called the Vibradrone, or the Tronic Drone Consoul. I have to confess an obsession with the number nine. That is, nine as it occurs in numerology. You know, you assign numbers to the letters of the alphabet. A is one, B is two, and so on. Z is 26, but two and six equal eight, so Z is eight numerologically. All the letters have single-digit values, going from one to nine, A to I, one to nine again, I to R, and then one to eight, S to Z. With words, you add up all the letters and resolve them down to a single digit. Each word has a single-digit value. I got into this when I realized that in my birth name, Daniel Cooper Clark, all three words add up to nine. So I adopted nine as "my" number. RM Is it supposed to bring you good luck?

B Oh, I don't know. It's just me, that's all. Well, I decided that for any name I would think up, it had to add up to nine. Like Vibradrone, or Tronic Drone Consoul, or Beltashazam. RM That name of yours - I suppose it would have to, eh? B Definitely, or else - well, it wouldn't be me. RM How did you come by that name? B In the Bible, when the prophet Daniel is in Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar gives him the name Beltashazzar. So there's a start. Then, when I was a kid, my favorite superhero was Captain Marvel - we're talking late 1940s, early 1950s. And the way Billy Batson turns himself into Captain Marvel is by saying "Shazam," which is am acronym of the names Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. It's a kind of mantra. Putting the two together, you get Beltashazam. Also, when my guru initiated me as his student, he gave me the Sanskrit name Damodar, which literally means "rope around the belly." Well, a rope around the belly is a belt - so there you have the first syllable, Belt. The whole thing wraps up what you might call my material name and my spiritual name with the practice of invoking the names of divine beings by chanting a mantra. RM Did that just happen, or did you labour over it a long tine? B That one went quickly. Others, not always so. But once I started, I just went all the way with the number nine. Voice of the World: Harmonic Wave Drone Song Ritual for the Infinite Inconceivable Love Form. Uh, one other thing - it's best if the initial letters, the capitalized letters, also add up to nine. That way the acronym is a nine. Like TDC, VW. Zone Of Droning. The Zone of Devotional Droning for Blacky. Blacky means Krishna, which means "black" in Sanskrit. The Vocal Chords. Drone of the Atom Vibrations. Playtime with the Om of the Electrons. Experiments in Ritual Droning. Pandevotional Glory Droning. Or, single words - Droning, Dronist, The Dronetones, Dronesinging, Tone-Droning. RM It's a sort of a game you play. B Yes, a game, or a mathematical poetics. RM You tossed out a word there - Pandevotional - I haven't heard that before. B Ah - it's not in the dictionary. I coined the term, looking for something to describe how I felt about Nature Religion. Pandevotional Glory Droning was the title for my performance for a while. It combined three sounds that I called, uh, Ritual Music of the Atoms Drone, Highpitched Sounds of the Neurons Drone, and Reverberating Pulse of the Galaxies Drone. The program notes, as I remember, said, "The steady B Flat / F / B Flat chord of the universe is a drone of worship."

RM Then for you that chord is not only in your nervous system but also a universal phenomenon. B Oh yes - for instance, there's a black hole in the Perseus cluster, and with NASA's Chandra telescope, which orbits the Earth, astronomers saw distinct sound wave patterns emanating from the black hole. They measured the waves and determined the sound to be B Flat, although in an octave hundreds of times lower than we could hear. Also, the Earth itself has a constant hum. As far as I know, it's not just B Flat, but is made up of many tones and even melodies. It's generated by ocean currents and atmospheric pressures pressing on tectonic plates, as I recall. RM Those sounds, to you, are a drone of worship. B Nature worships God. What I say is, let us join Nature in her worship of God. That's Pandevotionalism. The atoms, the electrons, are singing praises to God. Now, I want my music, my singing, to be part of that. RM It's like a very long OM. B OM is considered traditionally to be the background sound of the cosmos. Of course, for a lot of people, they use it as a way to, let's say, space out, kind of drift off. Well, that's OK, as far as it goes, to bring a peaceful state into a life that might be hectic or jittery. But from the Pandevotional point of view, OM is a hymn of worship. The universe is singing a hymn of praise. My initiating guru, the Hare Krishna guru, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad, he said that OM is the same as Krishna, who is a person. So OM, which is usually considered an impersonal vibration, is actually a person, God, and that person is the ultimate reality. It all starts with a person, and if we understand that OM is a person, Krishna, then he said, "You can become Krishna-conscious while chanting OM." So I'm saying that OM is God, and at the same time OM is the universe's song of praise to God. RM Whilst listening, I heard other vocalizations too, besides OM. B I sing other names of God, especially "Hare" - or "Hara," which is a feminine term, a name for the Goddess. Again, from the Sanskrit. I've also found other sounds that are very good for producing overtones. Sounds like "uwwa-owaa" or "Uwa Heyoaha." That "Heyoaha" moves over into a Native American mode, and the crying out to the Great Spirit. I want the singing to get intense... RM That it is! B ...to communicate a longing, even a weeping for God. Well, Weeping For God, WFG, there's another nine. Sorry, I can't stop myself. RM Oh, no problem. Do go on! But yes, devotion and longing - your performance does have a kinship with some high-volume liturgical music, oratorios, masses. I think of the Bible, "In the beginning was the word." Your words, or vocalizations, have that quality.

B In the beginning was the Logos. Logos indicates the word and the speaking or intonation of the word, a transition from concept to sound, let us say from a numinous world to a created world, or from potentiality to actuality. It is a creation, a birth. In the Sanskrit literature also, the first manifestation of the universe is as sound, pure sound. Out of sound is then manifested space. Out of space comes light, and so on. "Let there be light." It's the same cosmology. It's also curious that when Fred Hoyle was making fun of a theory he disagreed with, he called it the "Big Bang" theory, another instance of sound being associated with the creation of the cosmos. Well, let's look at the electromagnetic spectrum. There's sound at the long wavelength end. I take that to mean sound is the fundamental, the tonic, of the world. The shorter wavelengths - the higher frequencies - are harmonic frequencies of sound. Light is an overtone of sound. Finally, everything's made of sound. Atoms are made of sound. If you go to the Wikipedia article about the electromagnetic spectrum, the author indulges in a speculation that the longest wavelength, which would be a sound, would extend to the span of the whole universe. The shortest would be a Planck length, which is the shortest possible unit of space- time, an essential factor of atomic structure. If that frequency, the highest possible frequency, is an overtone of the cosmic sound - well, one is reminded of Pythagoras and Kepler and their "music of the spheres," those spheres now including not only planets but atoms. But let's go further. Sound and consciousness are the same thing. When quantum physics was first being developed, Sir Arthur Eddington said that "Physics is the study of the structure of consciousness. The 'stuff' of the world is mind stuff." OK, everything is made of consciousness. I would equate that with sound. For instance, Plato said that the basic symptom of life is motion. In my terms, the soul by itself is pure motion - or, maybe, e-motion. Anyway, moving things produce sound as a byproduct, a radiating energy. The soul radiates sound, the soul radiates consciousness, the soul radiates consciousness in the form of sound. Sound and consciousness are the same thing. So, what is the nature of that energy? A going out to an Other. An urge from potentiality to actuality. It's worship. Worship is the essential activity of the soul and of the universe, which is really another soul, or perhaps better the universe is the Goddess. But then the total spiritual reality, the source of it all, is also a Supreme Feminine. Worship is the fundamental. That's Pandevotionalism. RM Thank you, Beltashazam, for this thought-provoking session. B Thank you, Roger. Hope to see you next time I'm in London.

© 2009 Daniel Clark