SA11: The Ritual Issue

Dear Carefully Selected Colleague:*

 

I will start by telling you that this is not an email selling anything or announcing a gig. Let's get that out of the way right now...I actually want to ask you to share a little bit of yourself for Sound American Issue 11: The Ritual Issue.

 

Let me explain.

 

The issue itself deals with the idea of ritual as it relates to those that make art and music. The word can have a breadth of meaning from the religious to the cultural to the daily act. To that end, the issue will feature interviews with a Jewish cantor, a composer of liturgical music, a club DJ, a composer of music for sporting events, a musicologist dealing specifically with the role of music in protest in Japan, as well as articles on black metal stage presence and how the idea of drone is coopted from meditation and religion into pure music. I also want to talk to makers and doers about the miniature daily levels of ritual that they may have to continue to be creative.

 

That's where you come in.

 

I would like to involve you in a little experiment to bring back a journalistic form I've always found fascinating that, sadly, drifted into the ether in the mid-1930s: the questionnaire.

 

In a broad sense, a questionnaire consists of one or two very open ended questions that allows for the subject to answer in a way that gets their point across while providing latitude to present ideas and aesthetics in a very personal and creative way. This format reached its height in Eugene Jolas and Elliot Paul's 1930s Paris based magazine transition. And it's in those answers from James Joyce or William Carlos Williams that I fell in love with the potential of the questionnaire. Sound American somewhat resurrected it for our What Is Jazz?  conversation in Issue 8, and now I'd like to do it more formally with a smaller, more varied group of thinkers.

 

 So what's it to you?  Well, I think you are part of this varied group of thinkers, makers, dreamers, and producers. At this point, having read all the preceding text is already a commitment. If you've gotten this far, I ask you to please drop me a line and let me know if you'd like to be a part of my questionnaire.

 

If you are unfamiliar with Sound American, you can see our link below for the most recent issue, which features Christian Wolff.

 

I hope you will be interested in undertaking this experiment with me. I think it will be both fun and enlightening.

 

-Nate Wooley Editor-In-Chief Sound American

 

 

* This is the email that went out to a group of 20 artists for this project. You have, with the exception of some deadline and other pragmatic information, the same amount of guidance as they had when they chose to undertake the project with me. I think it is essential to being able to view the radically different forms their answers take - Ed.

 

 

 

 *****

 

 

 

The Questions:

 

1.    How do you define the word ritual?

 

2.    Based on that definition, what do you consider to be the most ritualistic aspect of your creative life?

 

3.    Do you think the ritual you describe is positive or negative? Why?

 

4.    Do you think the world around us needs more ritual or less? Why?

Curator and Composer Randy Gibson

1.    How do you define the word ritual?

 

For me, ritual is really about codifying our social situation. It’s those things we do, big or small, out of habit, imitation, or respect that become a part of our lives and bring a sense of decorum to our interactions with each other.

 

There’s also the implicit spiritual or religious overtone when we use the term “ritual” and that’s a part of it too. Being raised without religion or spirituality really, as an artist, I’m interested in how traditionally religious ritualistic markers imprint themselves onto our subconscious, and how our early memories of these rituals color the way we experience art and life now.

 

 

2.    Based on that definition, what do you consider to be the most ritualistic aspect of your creative life?

 

Ritual has become a very strong part of the way I make my music. When I was searching as a young artist, discovering the works of John Cage and the Fluxus artists I also began going to a Tibetan Buddhist temple in my hometown to sit and meditate, and that was really my first mature exposure to any real form of religious ritual. The spiritual content didn’t particularly speak to me, but the respect that everyone showed for the situation, bowing in front of the shrines, not turning your back to the idols &c. interested me a great deal. Those ritualistic elements forced an inner contemplation that opened me up to the world.

 

When I moved to New York and began studying with Khan Sahib La Monte Young, I was introduced to an even deeper ritualistic tradition. Khan Sahib teaches in the traditional Guru-disciple manner which he learned from his Guru, Pandit Pran Nath, and which is about so much more than just having a lesson. It’s experiencing the way he does things, the way he thinks about art and life and transcendence. From the first moments that I spent with Khan Sahib and Marian Zazeela at a late-night composition lesson in 2003 I knew that my life and art had changed forever. The ritual of serving them, of helping produce the concerts and installations, of being around them on a regular basis is a better education than I ever could have gotten in a traditional school. Khan Sahib has said it’s “entirely a new way of learning. It’s not something rigid that’s written on a page (and that certainly has its values) but it was something actually that makes a step in the direction of immortality.” (Interview with Frank J. Oteri)

 

This way of thinking has infused the way I make my work as well. I don’t write a traditional score, play these notes at these times, in this order, for example. I work closely with my performers to create something living. They hear what I’m doing with the material and learn from that, but they also add something new. My newest and biggest piece Apparitions of The Four Pillars in The Midwinter Starfield under The Astral 789 Duet which we’re performing next month is directly in this tradition, and without learning from Khan Sahib in this manner I wouldn’t have been able to translate it to my work. The score is only twenty-two measures long, but the work is nearly 3 and a half hours. Our score is simply a map that we all follow together, learning from each other, listening. It’s an ecstatic experience when we all come together on a chord that we all know instinctively is perfect, and it soars to a new height.

 

 

3.    Do you think the ritual you describe is positive or negative? Why?

 

I think it’s a positive thing. I think these sorts of rituals, whether psychic or real, become universal. When I burn incense before a piece, or the way we conduct ourselves as performers, helps clarify the situation. I stopped having applause at the end of my performances a few years ago, a tradition that has been making its rounds through the new music scene for a hundred years but which I was really exposed to at the concerts at the Dream House. But I never had to ask people to stay silent. It’s the rituals that surround our performances that encourage it, the drone continues after we stop, as performers, making sounds. The lighting may change, but it doesn’t end. It leaves the work feeling eternal, and it wouldn’t work without the ritual cues.

 

 

4.    Do you think the world around us needs more ritual or less? Why?

 

I think there’s just the right amount.

Tubist and Composer Carl Ludwig Huebsch

1.    How do you define the word ritual?

 

An act of rather stereotype actions, which - expressed positively - allows you to reach and act beyond personal concerns. (Beyond these concerns you will find the needs of yourself, the surrounding, the moment, the room, the companions, the audience inside, the air outside the room, the people outside, the traffic light on the corner…) Thus a ritual helps you, to deal with a situation, to focus. Negatively expressed a ritual replaces thought and questions about adequate action.

 

A ritual may vary between things like watching a TV series after dinner on sunday evenings, doing a prayer before lunch or quarreling with your partner at breakfast. It differs from the term habit by including a conscious or unconscious formal aspect which allows a certain liberty from too many questions.

 

 

2.    Based on that definition, what do you consider to be the most ritualistic aspect of your creative life?

 

The status of preparation before a concert. Set up, wait, be ready for the unknown. Although there are many ways of preparation and every time it is different, there is a ritualistic aspect in all the actions, no matter whether I talk to somebody, be with myself, eat, drink or smoke. Each action is part of that rather joyful tension that keeps me awake just a bit above the usual state: I know I will play and I don´t know how it will be. Another ritual I do in my creative life is yelling at the computer when it behaves unexpectedly and seemingly doesn't allow me to compose. But this ritual rarely serves it´s purpose (See above) or the purpose of this ritual is unknown to me. At least nothing gets better with this ritual (See below)

 

 

3.    Do you think the ritual you describe is positive or negative? Why?

 

Strictly positive in the first case, it helps me to focus, pushes me forwards. Strictly negative in the latter, confuses me even more and pushes me backwards. (BUT at least it makes me admire real computer freaks who solve problems by calmly sitting on a chair and watching a display)

 

 

4.    Do you think the world around us needs more ritual or less? Why?

 

When I do my ritual the world around me is part of it. When I don´t do it the world does not do it. That´s where I see this question. I am turned off by people who believe that other people have to follow the same rituals they do. To claim a need for the world "around us" has a strange taste, too: Where might that be, around us? And then, there are too many poor or terrible rituals in this world which I would not miss. Killing rituals !

Musician and Scholar Ian Nagoski

1.    How do you define the word ritual?

 

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same result. Does that mean that it is the opposite of insanity or just a variation? Is the difference between ritual and habit the implication of the potential for something holy to occur?

 

 

2.    Based on that definition, what do you consider to be the most ritualistic aspect of your creative life?

 

Leaving my love life out of it, I can say that there is a great deal of ritual in listening to records. One goes through a proscribed set of gestures at the altar of the turntable in order to come into contact with a disembodied voice from the past.

 

 

3.    Do you think the ritual you describe is positive or negative? Why?

 

Who wouldn't want the opportunity to come into deep emotional communion with an invisible force in a repeatable and controllable way?

 

 

4.    Do you think the world around us needs more ritual or less? Why?

 

There is a lot to be said for the intimacy and care of ceremony and attention to something wonderful or apparently sacred. Often, though, we are given rituals to enact which are designed to replace difficult, chaotic, honest feelings with more orderly, less animalistic, simpler feelings; I'm thinking here of funerals.

Painter Adrienne Pierluissi

1.    How do you define the word ritual?

 

A ritual is something done everyday, or as often as possible, with the same intention or intentions.

 

 

2.    Based on that definition, what do you consider to be the most ritualistic aspect of your creative life?

 

The most ritualistic aspect of my creative work is that I go to the studio with the same intentions each time. There’s nothing I do that’s ceremonial, or preparatory. I clean my brushes and palette when I have to, and I usually jump right into painting, with no thought of where I’ll end up, or whether anything of meaning will be created.

 

This idea of ritual doesn’t really apply to me, as the ritual is going to the studio. The tools I choose to use, the colors, or lack of, the symbols, shapes, lines, these all occur at the moment, conceived as I’m painting, and the actions used are entirely different per painting, or series.

 

The set up of the Poppy Series can be seen as ritualistic, in that I had to pre-mix in buckets all of the colors to be used, for acrylic and oil, for all four seasons, and that was a common thing, but for the next series, the ritual is different.   So, ritual as action, changes. The intention, to be present and convey as purely as possible, is always the same, and the outcome is always different.

 

 

3.    Do you think the ritual you describe is positive or negative? Why?

 

We control our ritualistic behaviours, so they’re always positive, even when we’re being destructive, it’s for change, and that’s positive.

 

 

4.    Do you think the world around us needs more ritual or less? Why?

 

I think everyone should have something in their life that they try to do their best at, everyday. Walk the dog, cook a meal, do your best at it, master one thing, and this conveys into all aspects of your life.

 

The more we attempt to master something, it brings great humility as we realize how little we know, and humility is good for the world.

Saxophonist, Educator, and Composer Andrew Raffo Dewar

1.    How do you define the word ritual?

 

A repetitive activity carried out with thoughtfulness, attention to detail, intentionality and commitment – sometimes (often?) as a compulsion. It does not have a religious or spiritual connotation in the way I deploy it.

 

 

2.    Based on that definition, what do you consider to be the most ritualistic aspect of your creative life?

 

In my creative life, I would probably have to say playing long tones and overtones in my practice regime. Outside of my music making, it would be the brewing of my morning espresso – though the two are often in a symbiotic relationship!

 

 

3.    Do you think the ritual you describe is positive or negative? Why?

 

It is simultaneously and/or alternately positive and negative, in part because long tone practice is, for me, the main “barometer” by which I measure my progress on my instrument and the continuing development and fine-tuning of my sound. Long tones and overtone practice are the fundamental building blocks of everything else I attempt to do with the instrument. When I have not had time to work on the instrument as much as I would like, it is a reminder that I have been spending my time elsewhere – for better or (more likely) worse. The positive side of this ritual is that it has become something that feels necessary and natural (no doubt in part because mindful breathing is at the root of this practice), and where other things in my practice regime (e.g. scales, arpeggios, etc.) often feel like an imposition (though they shouldn’t!) long tone and overtone practice always feels good – a meditative respite from the wider world.

 

 

4.    Do you think the world around us needs more ritual or less? Why?

 

I wouldn’t use the word “ritual” for a prescription that broad, but I do think that the world needs more of the thoughtful engagement, commitment and continual fine-tuning over a long period of time that rituals require. The exponentially increasing speed and complexity of contemporary life, with its requirements to react, respond, and produce at a faster and faster pace is the antithesis of my definition of ritual (which is, perhaps, an anachronism).

Saxophonist Seymour Wright