Beneath the great official history of music lies a more discrete history – small internal revolutions that cross the barrier of words with difficulty. Musicians, who are the very heart and reason for these upheavals, rarely remember such occurrences (1). In an instant, their consciousness is overwhelmed by an astonishing moment and they are encouraged to discover new worlds. There was Debussy’s stunned reaction upon hearing a (Sundanese) Indonesian Gamelan at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889(2). There were also the notable Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes composed by Erik Satie, one of Debussy’s friends, in those same years. At the very beginning of the second Gnossienne, for example, the following suggestion, “with astonishment” (avec étonnement), is offered to the performer. The piece is not meant to be adaggio or vivace, nor is it appasionato or con fuego. There must simply be just the right amount of presence of mind to suspend one’s judgement while also being prepared for delight. This consists in an ethos of the musician, and, even, of the act of creation, which John Cage and a few other twentieth century American composers professed in the wake of Satie.
Slamet Sjukur was another one of Satie’s heirs. Upon our first encounter in Paris in 1975, he led me to decipher the decisive calls that sometimes mark the lives of people and often mark the intimate history of musicians. We were to remain friends and partners in crime until his death in 2015. I have had the opportunity of hearing a few other Indonesian composers who were his students; I now believe that Indonesia, a traditional land of syntheses, will soon become the stage for new aesthetic pathways and new, surprising and fruitful adventures in musical consciousness. These adventures are fruitful precisely because they are surprising: the following story does not only detail the encounter between two musicians; it consists in a musical event in itself, one that is etched in a world as sensitive and interactive as a scale of notes. It took the form of an unexpected encounter in Yogyakarta, as I was roaming the streets to avoid the crowds. With a map in hand, I was looking for a local handicraft museum. It was the month of August, 2013. I was also driven by an as-yet secret project: to meet a gamelan player. The previous evening, I had wondered whether I should go to one of the city’s music schools or simply call Slamet, whom I had just seen two days before in Surabaya… My perplexed thoughts were interrupted by two taps on the left shoulder from a man offering to help: “where are you going?” ‘On the off-chance’, as we so improperly say, I asked him “what is your occupation?” while we were headed to the museum. “I am a Gamelan player!… And, actually, I am performing tonight at the Imperial Palace. Come and hear me there!” During the hour-long shadow puppetry performance, I did indeed recognize him among the three Gamelan musicians (the word Gamelan refers both to the instrument and the orchestra), as the players accompanied an episode of the Mahabarata in which Bhima, the “epitomy of the Wayang heroic figure” (3), manages to convince the enemies of good. I was later to learn that the hero, whose eyes are reddened by the fire of Agni (4), was an avenger as well as a messenger. He dared to address the gods in the popular language usually meant for ordinary people. He also became a great initiate: at the end of a long journey searching for the “fundamental essence of his being”, he found Dewa Ruci, his miniature double, “at the bottom of the deepest ocean”. The latter revealed to him that “… there is no need to search for the essence of the being around the world, for we bear it within us; the Divine is our inner voice, the Jati Ningsun”(5).
Two taps were therefore played on my left shoulder by my keyboardist double, Bhima-the-Gamelan-player, who seemed to be a performer and messenger from another world: we aptly say that all encounters are meetings. But how can a meeting be planned without the protagonists knowing? How can it escape the mental realm of predictions, expectations and representations? A meeting that is not, therefore, an unannounced encounter, one which our most common distractions lead us to attribute to chance?
Are we guided by a “direction”? Not from a cause to an effect – I search and I find –, but from our linear space-time to a world that might substitute its determinism for our world’s determinism, its law for our “natural” law – what I am searching for finds me – ?
It would be a world of generalised and instantaneous interactions. Not the world that floats above our human condition like the paradise promised to us by religion, but rather an inner world, highly intimate, outside of which the human being is in exile. A world that is constantly there, but to which we forget to pay attention. A world where everything is instantaneous presence.
What does music and its occasionally astonishing percussions tell us about this inner world, this presence?
The concertante autobiography of a musician at the crossroads: the story starts here with Satie, but it could have begun with Monteverdi, or Bach, or other great names of the classical repertoire. The questions posed in the works are the same, whether they are asked by one creator or another. What if the ultimate goal and the primary motivation of music were, in fact, to render us aware of the blossoming presence at the heart of everything? Therefore also awakening us to our conscience in its most intimate course, an instantaneous and permanent GPS system of sorts?
Bhima-Satie remained discreetly at the margins of the prevailing musical trends of his time. In some of his works and some of his words, key questions were asked of the music, of its meaning and reach within each person. The advice given in the Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies present in themselves a short treatise of musical ethics. The performer is asked to find the right distance between him and what he is playing: not too far, as he must commit to the notes and carry the surveyed intentions all the way through. But not too close, either: he must be careful not to let himself become stirred by the emotional movements these suggestions generate. In other words, he is to play the game while keeping it handy, not turning it into a vessel for various pipe dreams. He must not be vampirized or exalted, but be an astonished and lucid guide.
The second piece of advice Satie gives to the performer is “do not leave” (“ne sortez pas”), just as the first theme of the second Gnossienne resumes. Do not step away from your astonishment, do not see it as an exit route leading to the world and its spells, make it your home instead… The resurgence of the second theme, a discrete yet central movement of the heart, is accompanied by the phrase “in great goodness” (“dans une grande bonté”). “More intimately” (“plus intimement”) underscores the advent of the third theme, in the major scale this time, which the performer should not let slip through his fingers like a boastful tune, rather letting its sole certainty shine.
A common thread links Satie’s Gnossiennes, his Gymnopédies and even his 1897 Pièces Froides to the French harpsichordists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, among which Couperin, first and foremost – the very one who created Grâces naturelles, Barricades mystérieuses and numerous musical portraits. What resurfaces in Satie’s “intimate” works (yes, “intimate” and not “intimist”), reminds us of a very French custom, before the Romantic age, of paying attention to the discrete charm of people and things as they were caught unawares in the simplicity and depth of their own presence. After the feverish Romantics, the chords of these short and un-emphasized pieces followed each other without creating the tensions that led to a final rest, the latter in turn crowning the whole piece with its conclusion. It was new: before then, music had been sustained by the resolution’s announced or belated preparedness, depending on the harmonic strategies adopted in the work, and as early as the very first note, which consciousness always anticipates. Before Satie, such a perspective ruled over the music’s development, giving meaning to successions of notes that were pulled to reach the vanishing point. Here, no more anticipation. The listener spontaneously endows the consecutive chords and solitary melody, which seems to fly over the chords, with a certain mobility devoid of expectation, sans horizon (6).
During the same period, Matisse’s paintings and collages were the pictorial equivalent of harmonic flattening – playing with light, shape and colour, in the space of a room, of a window or of a dance, at the limits of what could be said, shown, and sensed. Through small strokes, they were also initiatory at the time; they shared the same absence of narrative thread and depth of field as Satie’s works. Later, other painters and other musicians would no longer need points of reference in the visible, the audible, the real. This was for the best of creative adventures, but also for the worst of intellectual misguidances, with abounding examples in twentieth century aesthetic history.
As we stay melded to a body that has abandoned itself to its reflexes, we only pay attention to it in order to carry out our projects, going there, sitting here… This is what we all do, virtually all the time. We forget to simply be where we are, therefore distracting ourselves from our meeting with Life. Satie invites us to play a different game, an “intimate” choreography inhabited more fully by our consciousness. Not only is it tied to our body, but it changes into it more each time, down to its very fibre. Couperin pulls away, Messiaen, Varèse, Cage and Ligeti move closer, while Sjukur and Scelsi are announced, among many others. Not so much their works, but everything that makes their emergence possible; the evolution of homo occidentalis, or even simply of sapiens, are accelerated by the disasters of the twentieth century, as well as by the “New adventures” (7) of consciousness, beyond the frontiers erected by thwarted civilizations and habits of thought.
While the second Gnossienne made us follow a ridge between two worlds, the third Gnossienne opens up a larger space as early as its first theme. This space does not tie to our emotional or sentimental life, nor to our regrets and surges, but it is an additional threshold closer to the intimate, ending with the final piece of advice in the last resumption of the first theme: “Bury the sound” (“enfouir le son”) – not dolce or moins fort or en sourdine, but instead “bury the sound”, to the point that sound becomes a sinuous movement that isn’t so much perceived, isn’t so much conceived, as it is lodged in a consciousness that is both autonomous and linked to the melded consciousness of the musician. An experience of the confines, so close – much closer than we think – calling us, utterly intimate.
Now is the time to remember: under the compelled fingers of the pianist, within the range of his breath, let air pass between the notes, let the music fill the breach left open by astonishment, by its lived trial, by what it has dug and dis-covered in us. We are surprised to see Our Self, there, at that instant: the three indications to the performer of the Verset Laïque et Somptueux (8) are eloquent: “Think” (“réfléchir”) is the first one, placed on the autograph manuscript, just before the beginning of the piece. “Differently” (“autrement”) appears as the music engages towards the finale. “Oneself” (“soi-même”) is placed above the four chords of the last phrase. Together, the three indications form a French haiku of sorts, delineated in three sub-moments: to think is to put the object at a distance from reflection, standing guard. Differently, an ad-verb, distracts the reflection away from its primary object, inviting it to detach from itself. Oneself is the accomplishment of the suggested reversal. At the opposite spectrum of “myself”, “oneself” is the work’s ultimate aim, both its engine and its immobile centre. It forms the discrete and subtle response of the “intimate”, heightened and connected to the imperious and triumphant exhibition, the “universal” one, for which an œuvre by the composer had been commissioned.
In Indonesia, Raden Adjeng Kartini is seen as a national heroin and a pioneer of feminism. The letters she wrote to her friends were published in 1911, seven years after her premature death at the age of twenty-five. The collection was named “From Darkness into Light”. Other than the thoughts that made her famous, the collection holds a description of what she felt and experienced one day upon hearing a gamelan (9). It is a short narrative of extraordinary lucidity depicting how space and time were seized by the consciousness that music had awakened in her. Not only did this young Indonesian princess dispose of an extremely sensitive internal GPS, but she was also gifted with intelligence. She wrote this sentence, which crowned her description of her experience: “and clear as though it were today, visions of the future rise to my mind”. The following short final observation re-centred the experience itself and the whole writing enterprise that sprang from it: “and in my heart it is again light”.
Bhima-Kartini had indeed heard the small internal voice of Jati Ningsun at the bottom of her consciousness: “We had sought so far and so long, we did not know that it was near, that it was always with us, that it was in us” (10).
An additional step toward the intimate, as aired by Satie and caught by Kartini, his contemporary: the intuition of the sound continuum at the origin of Ivan Wyschnegradsky’s life of creation. This sudden revelation affected him in 1916 when he was 23 years old.
On a fine spring day, in 1978, Bhima-Slamet brought me to a Parisian apartment in the 15th arrondissement, where the sharp-eyed elderly composer welcomed us in his home. He was a Russian musician from St Petersburg and had immigrated to France, settling in Paris as early as 1920. Since the post-war period, he was a marginal composer who had nevertheless been recognized in the small contemporary classical music circle in Paris. His theoretical texts have been published and discussed. I discovered his three-keyboard piano, each keyboard tuned within a quarter tone in distance. When the same notes are played from one keyboard to another, a scale composed of 24 quarter tones is heard, similar to the 22 shrutis that divide the octave in Indian music. It gives the impression of pulling a continuous string of sound rather than crossing intervals, of gliding instead of skipping from one note to another as we do in our Western scales, of finally touching malleable sound matter, an undulating vibratory body. He was to speak of “sound fluid” (“fluide sonore”), an astonishing expression which suggests that another dimension of consciousness had indeed opened in him. In order to reveal and direct this flow, he imagined “non-octaviating” spaces (espaces “non-octaviants”) in which the founding structural element was a modified octave, smaller or larger than the traditional acoustic octave: such spaces were to open the twentieth century musical consciousness to new, as-yet unsuspected realms of experience, even if it is still hard for most of us today to hear and connect them.
As our visit was ending, our host was keen on letting us hear the last recording of “La Journée de l’Existence”, which he had composed and written at the very start of his life of creation in 1916, only a short while after having experienced the sound continuum. It is a long epic poem (11) with Nietzsche-like accents. A man’s recitation is supported by an orchestral background, itself sustained by harmonies inspired by Scriabin, Wagner, as well as Debussy. While this “post-romantic” piece did not feature micro-tonality or non-octavian spaces, it formed the intellectual foundation and musical cornerstone for an entire creative approach, the latter of which was still very close to the initial impulse borne out of the sound continuum so suddenly revealed to him.
If we want to understand what Bhima-Wyschnegradsky’s revelation was, we must not limit ourselves to speculations and calculations, despite the fact that these have since mobilized the attention of (electro) acoustic studios and musical research laboratories throughout the world. The problem does not so much lie in the results of such research, but in the bias and the meaning attached to it. Technicians question the continuum, aided by much financial support and without fully knowing if it is, in fact, their object. The continuum is not the sound matter that they dissect and manipulate endlessly. It is a continuous flow, where ideas and expression, numbers and emotional impressions, are without distance.
All at once energy, form (12), vibration, and memory: the musician’s sound is not the acoustician’s finite object. It is a consciousness continuum that will never appear on computer screens. Unless… who knows… It all comes down to the right intention.
Predisposing ourselves to astonishment – not only to the surprises which we withstand and from which we always come back, but to the astonishments that lead us where we did not know we were meant to be. Scelsi’s music is immobile fire, sonorous incandescence, the confine’s response to the explorer who has managed to make his initial astonishment last.
There are the dances of Shiva; four episodes in the day of Brahma; it was heard in the most concealed rooms of the Mayan temple (Uaxuctum); incantations in the name of Jesus in the early Christian period, or a piano sonata in the heart of Tibet (Bot-Ba). All of these sonorous visions, among many others, were heard and transmitted by musicians in states of “deep awakening” (“sommeil profond”) (13), like the night enveloping Rome and its fountains. It is astonishment at its peak of passive vigilance. It is the intimate leading to the emergence of the buried sound that arises out of millennia of silence, but that is always available here and now14 to those who know how to hear it. It is all very natural. There is nothing magical, no miracles, simply the emergence of consciousness, one which has broken the shackles of thought traps, of strategies linked to the programmed failures and previsions of intelligence. “Do not think” was the soundest advice given by Scelsi to his friends and partners.
He gave me the simplest and seemingly anecdotal piece of advice one day at his home in Rome. As I shared my difficulties as a composer with him, he told me something actually very radical: “While you have already detected all of the pretences and mirages attached to the most authorized circles of what is known as “contemporary” music, this is what you should do now: close your eyes and wait for the music to come. If you’re a musician, it will come. If nothing comes, do something else, plumbing, architecture, running, whatever you want, but not music!” Later, still in his excellent yesteryear French: “What we need isn’t more intelligence, or even more morality, but more consciousness!” The next day, to my girlfriend and to me: “…making love is an art form: the breathing must be harmonised, the energy of the lovers must become the couple’s consciousness… We must cease being mammals…” (15).
“To hear the heart of sound beating” –Bhima-Scelsi encouraged musicians of all styles visiting him to live this concrete experience. It consists in penetrating the sound’s living centre until the vibrations organize as pulsations, the undulation as rhythm, the harmonics as harmony. There could not be a more radical transgression of the aesthetic horizon that had been authorized by the tenants of the musical doxa of the time, by the calculations of acoustical science and, more generally, by the blind alleys of “thought” music. After Scelsi, the heart of sound beating was heard in one way or another, as sound became the direct expression of an energy accumulating within it and reaching it all the more intensely as it diffused. That is why he spoke of the “heart” of sound and not the body. He meant that sound could not be reduced to one component or to inanimate sound matter. It truly was an organ and a flow of consciousness that was constantly regenerating itself (16). This poem (17) says it too, transposing the principle to all matter.
La pierre endormie
déploie les fastes
de sa mémoire
“Spherical sound”: I knew of no one before him who had associated these two words. Such a coupling infers that the sound continuum cannot be accessed linearly through successive approaches, as the source and its command move away. Its third dimension – depth – must, therefore, be revealed to update its genesis, to exhaust its fascination and to uncover its mystery. Stadium and laboratories will never get excited about this ball of sound. It has no aim outside of itself: there lies a discrete yet decisive revolution for the Roman meta-musician.
Following Satie’s side step, Kartini’s vision, Wyschnegradsky’s revelation, and the enlightenments of a few poets, scientists and artists, Bhima-Scelsi’s discoveries prove essential for the continuation of the musical and vibratory adventure, as researchers of musical meaning and other explorers of the tonal extreme-centre are included: “In sound, we discover an entire universe… it surrounds you… we swim in it”(18). Inside the sound that is buried within us… at the most intimate.
Today, the engine of musical creation no longer amounts to the calculations of some, or to the inspiration of others. It is rather the instantaneous and infallible presence of a sole consciousness. A most intimate revolution indeed driven by assiduous and permanent work which should not be interrupted by waking or sleep, nor by birth or death. At this crossroad – a must-have in any autobiography – the “miniature double” must continue to astonish us as it precedes us and waits for us, wherever we may be, always staying close to the lucid flashes that cross through the history of men, “in great goodness”, always, and with a clear heart.
ERIC ANTONI, improviser and musicosopher.