Gavin Russom & Food Pyramid
"Beyond The Transcendental Dance"
Gavin Russom (The Crystal Ark, Black Meteoric Star) talks with Chris Hontos (Food Pyramid, Dreamweapon) on ancient and modern trances, repetition, the creative process and politics of dance music.
HC. I've been massively sick the last few days, Thinking about it now I should have sent a feverish proposal full of dadaist topics, but it scaped me. Hope you still have some minutes to enhance in a discussion?
Chris, when I asked Gavin to remix your track Knossos, it was not a random choice, I was very aware that both of your respective projects, Food Pyramid and The Crystal Ark operate somehow on a transcendental sphere; you both work with dance music (or peripheral elements of it, anyway) and somehow you translate it into impulses that appeal simultaneously to the classic escapism of the genre and towards a conscious or unconscious awareness. Is this a matter of taste? Is it provoked? Or are you just trying to reach harmony on a meta musical level? What Gavin thinks of this?
Also, what are your thoughts on modern and traditional "trance music" (talking very generally,from Goa trance to traditional African, Native Indian or South American ceremonies, passing by Motorik krautrock), is this a conscious influence for both of you? back to the future? Do you think you need more guidelines, or you rather go freeform? I have the feeling this could be more interesting if I end up letting topics develop by themselves…
G. Lots to talk about here for sure. Where to start?
C. Where to start is the question indeed. . .I wanna ask if you've ever heard the music of Nass El Ghiwane. They are a Moroccan group that has embraced the traditions of African trance music. [Check Here](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIgkdFoN0fs)
Pretty far from dance music as we know it in 2014, but the principles of repetition and melody seem to transcend itself over time and become something new - with dynamics and possibly even a narrative sense of direction amounting from it's minimalism. I find this concept to be relevant always in my own music and the music I am attracted to. To me this is where the idea of transcendental becomes an important theme in expression. It is important for it's simultaneous newness and timelessness.
G. Although Moroccan trance music and it's contemporary interpretations have played a big role in the development of my musical aesthetic. When "Gift of the Gnawa"(Flying Fish Records, 1991) came out my friend and I listened to it on a long drive through the mountains of Vermont at night and I remember thinking, "this is the the kind of experience I want to create with my music". The Master Musicians of Jajouka record as well as heavy research into both the music and philosophy of the Moroccan sufis Check here were also big building blocks. This stuff was like when I was 14, 15, 16 years old and trying to figure out what to do, because playing in a hardcore band started to seem limited and a little boring….But yeah the repetition and the intention of connection to the divine, those are big parts of what draws me to make and hear music.
Transcendental is a funny word since it implies that these experiences take us out of what's happening in front of us, whereas my experience is very different. In fact what I experience is a deeper and more present relationship to what's happening in front of me. I feel like the idea of transcendence is locked in a bit of a prison created by the western idea that God exists somewhere else rather than in everything, in a real way. It's interesting how you describe the dynamic aspect of this track (Nass El Ghiwane 'Zad al Ham'), I think that has a lot to do with its power, yes, the basis is repetition but there's something else happening as it unfolds in time that has to do with an "energy curve". And the repetition actually contributes to that, highlights it… This is undauntedly related to very important spiritual concepts as well as musical aesthetics…
C. Gift of the Gnawa is a favorite of mine.
I agree that Transcendental is a funny word - one that implies so much and yet is relevant to every facet of our lives. I have found that in my band the idea of transcendence has two components. One is the very tangible process of making and creating music that is largely improvised and automated (to some degree at least) with machines and also with other people. In this sense I consistently find that our music grows, changes, develops, digresses and progresses in ways that transcend the original intention that we have for it. Our idea of recording/performing is essentially getting four (or more) people in a room, turning on the machines and seeing what happens. It nearly always ends in a different space from where it started, and it always transcends itself and brings us to a place of unique perspective. The connection to the spiritual is totally important in this kind of creation. What happens in that time period from when the song starts and the song ends that changes my consciousness, making me feel like I woke up from deep sleep? This is why I make music.
The other component is the transcendental happening that is the live performance. Listen to a song on headphones on the subway, then go to a warehouse and listen to it blasting through the monitors with sweaty bodies all around you and you will have a completely different relationship with the music. Particularly with live performance there is this moment when a collective mind develops in the audience. This is when people start to dance and freak out and move. There is something divine when all people become enveloped in movement, impelled by the sound. It seems to me that The Crystal Ark really has this idea in mind. To create an individual experience - multi-cultural, multi-layered and perhaps multi-purpose in it's ability to function as dance music and a transcendental experience. It brings to mind the tradition of funeral dirges in Greek music. They function as an elegy for the deceased, an outlet for the grieved and in many cases a dance of celebration for life itself. Check here
I wonder if you'd talk more about the crystal ark in relation to transcendentalism?
G. Interesting stuff. And I can connect with a lot of it for sure.
Ok, so if I can track my own relationship to these ideas and the questions Hugo mentioned earlier as well, absolutely the effect you talk about as transcendental is 100% intentional in what I do. That mostly has to do with why I started making music in the first place. It was essentially about healing rather than self expression or even "art". I found that when I was making music, and listening to certain kinds of music I experienced a state of consciousness that felt better than what I normally felt like walking around in the world and interacting with people, since that always felt pretty terrible. I noticed that this effect lasted after the experience of the music and seemed to also have a cumulative effect, in other words each musical experience built on the one before so that I began to see that there was actually a real and direct healing process happening. And then I started to learn about these situations in the world such as rituals or celebrations where music is really used in this way with consciousness and intention. Once I got onto that I felt like I knew what I wanted to pursue with my life and work and that was it, and I did that through a lot of reading and listening because I wanted to deepen my relationship to this energy, whatever it is, and also learn how to work with it better.
That became about figuring out what these special states of consciousness were actually good for, what service they could be, rather than just enjoying or experiencing them for their own sake. Not that there's anything wrong with that, this is just where my path led me, and The Crystal Ark definitely comes out of that, using these special states of consciousness to awaken people's awareness of the world around them, both its beauty and its major problems and how they interact, and also to empower them especially around being connected to their bodies. Process wise it's interesting because the making of the music happens through a lot of different layers, individual, collaborative, improvisational, compositional…
I have my own individual process in how I write and Viva, my collaborator has hers, and there is certainly much transcendental and psychedelic experience going on there. When I work I'm using the states of consciousness I first experienced through improvising music to open myself up to the sounds and rhythms that want to work through me and that's what becomes a song or a track. Viva and I put the songs together and then we get the band together which mostly happens around the recording and live performance. And yeah the live performance is geared to transmit this experience to people by any means necessary. We're moving a lot of energy around with the intention of creating healing and consciousness raising through the special power of music that I think is what we're talking about here. Something really cool happened for me as a listener and experiencer of music when I was able to draw these lines of connection between dance music, jazz, psychedelic music and traditional musics from outside the music industry, I guess what people market as "world" music… It was powerful to see where those things connected and also where they differed from each other and why, and The Crystal Ark grew out of that process. I think you hit on the important thing there Chris that this music is both celebratory and purposeful, multi purposeful or maybe modularly purposeful and that's where the element of transcendence comes through. I suppose the deepest relationship I have to that idea is the transcendence of artificial boundaries or marketing categories like genre… I definitely have an interest in making music that lives in a different place than where that stuff lives. It's a olitical thing too, I mean you see that a lot of the problems in the world come as the result of the drawing of artificial boundary lines even in a literal way between countries or territories. Boundary lines that ignore and violate the actual experience of the people affected by those lines. And I think what we have in music a lot of the time is the exact same thing and so I'm interested in transcending these genre boundaries not for artistic reasons so much but for these political reasons, and as such I'm also interested in finding authentic and ethical ways to do that…
Chris, do you feel like there is a political aspect to your work with Food Pyramid? I'd also be curious to know what drew you to working with the kind of energies you work with musically and how you see the function of these unique states that it seems to be able to create.
C. Thanks for the questions. We live in a time where, because of the convergence of technology, we are simultaneously aware of the freedom of information and it's overbearing presence on our cognition. I think any expression that can take us away from this is extremely important. I think also that using the ubiquitous state of information in a way that subverts it and allows us to see or experience or hear something that exists outside of this paradigm is really valuable right now.
Food Pyramid operates on a political level if for no other reason than our awareness of this idea. The idea of playing improvised music, of never playing the same show twice, and experimenting with different modes of style is inherently a political gesture when contextualized within the milieu of modern music. In a sense these are also simple elements of a creative process, but they are conscious decisions to reformulate how Pop music is made _and more importantly_ heard. There are numerous examples in history of how this is probably done more effectively than we do with our humble midwestern music unit, but to engage in the greater dialogue of music and culture is impossible without at least taking a position on the subjects of that dialogue - and ours is firmly rooted in the truly transformative power of this music.
Gavin, I'm glad you mentioned Viva and your creative process. The spirit of collaboration is really what drew us to making music in the way that we do. In one sense I feel as though our music in this project is totally insular and apolitical as well, because it revolves solely on our relationship with each other. But in the greater picture this insularity and our ideas of music and art is informed totally by our political status. Never taking that for granted is at least the first step to becoming politically aware. We are deciding to commune in sound as a first step towards a recognition and practice of our own agency in the world. There's a reason why music is the first move for us. It's transcendental powers aren't merely intoxicating; they are also transformative of consciousness. I can think of no greater pursuit than the transformation or elevation of consciousness when considering our current political and social position.
The first time I truly began to understand the transcendental implications of music was the first time I heard Countdown by John Coltrane. I believe it's the punkest song ever recorded. A complete subversion of the paradigm of my understanding of music at the time, it was as though I was hearing The Rite Of Spring in 1913. I realized that any form can contain a structure that exists independently or in an entire different world altogether. And that a person can use a form (such as traditional jazz music) to almost any end, in a transcendental way.
G. Really feel you on these points Chris.
And to add my own experience, yeah we live in a world where 99.9% or more of the images we see and sounds we hear are designed to either sell us something, make us feel bad about ourselves so we buy something or shut us up. So taking control of your own time, experience and its soundtrack through creativity is undeniably a political act.
And hell yeah we need as much of that as possible. And music really is transformative, it changes time, space, inner and outer rhythms, interactions between people…
Collaboration and community are huge topics in themselves and one thing I really like about the musical process is how it can flow between the solitary and introspective and the communal and celebratory with ease, occupying many territories in between that are hard to define but very concrete when you experience them. It's one of the things that initially excited me about electronic dance music, that you have someone who is getting into this very deep introspective place while they are creating, and then that creation becomes an integral part of a very communal experience. And that sensibility certainly feeds into The Crystal Ark in all kinds of ways as I mentioned in my last mail. I'm really excited about the process of working with both of those energies together; individual introspection (maybe the meditative aspect of this transcendent experience we're discussing) and communal collaboration (which I guess I'm calling the celebratory aspect). They're definitely not mutually exclusive either, in fact they seem to really support each other.
I'm glad you mentioned Coltrane, as his life and work have just been a huge inspiration for me. I hadn't heard "Countdown" in ages but it was great to listen back to it in the context of this discussion and also to recall some of the more expansive later works like "Om" and "Interstellar Space" which just blew my mind the first time I heard them and continue to hold so much depth and power. I've had that Ah hah! moment with music over and over again and it's cool to really give that some space. The first time I heard a live recording of the Germs was like that. I could not believe the intensity of it, which was definitely fully crossed over into another world… It was almost too much the first time I heard it because also based on any conventional notions of music it was an absolute mess, but is was also absolutely perfect and full of so much energy that could not have been accessed (I believe) without the tool of noise structured into musical form. Cecil Taylor's "Unit Structures" was another lights going on moment for me as was Penderecki's "Elegy for the Victims of Hiroshima". And I think you make an important point that one of the very powerful things about pieces like that where the lights seem to go on, is that they may come from within a genre or medium (or have been structured into such a category later on by "history") punk, rock, jazz, contemporary classical in the examples above… But the energy present in the musical expression itself and its content go way beyond these ideas about "kinds" of music (which as I said before I believe are purely marketplace terms) and become actually ABOUT the energy they carry, the transmission of this energy end the transformation that can occur when one receives that transmission. All of the pieces of music I mention above actually changed me after hearing them. And I think that is this tremendous power that music has, that yes, is very transcendent.
Food Pyramid 'Knossos' 12" Ep (feat. Gavin Russom remix) is out now on Discos Capablanca distributed by Juno, and is also available in a limited edition of 50 12" vinyl records with individual spray painted sleeves by Russian artist Andreas Golder at ww.discoscapablanca.com