Aural Architecture – Building a Temple in Sound: The Swans | Thee Majesty & the Concert Ritual

“Fairly often while I was talking quietly with the Shaikh, the name ‘Allah’ had come to us from some remote corner of the zawiyah, uttered on one long drawn out, vibrant note…It was like a cry of despair, a distraught supplication, and it came from some solitary cell-bound disciple, bent on meditation. The cry was usually repeated several times, and then all was silence once more.

…Later when I asked the Shaikh what was the meaning of the cry which we had just heard, he answered:

‘It is a disciple asking God to help him in his meditation.’

‘May I ask what is the purpose of his meditation?’

‘To achieve self-realization in God.’

‘Do all the disciples succeed in doing this?’

‘No, it is seldom that anyone does. It is only possible for a very few.’

‘Then what happens to those who do not? Are they not desperate?’

‘No: they always rise high enough to have at least inward Peace.’

– from Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi: A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century,, His Spiritual Heritage and Legacy,  by Martin Lings

Something more raw and real

Contemporary concerts are all too often facile exercises in dead culture; no alchemy, no vision, just genre and acquiescence to the limited expectations of the crowd. It’s rare and valuable when you encounter an artist able to invoke a more powerful experience, something raw and real, bordering on ritual or the screams for self-realization that Lings encountered in his experiences with Sufi sects.

On March 4th, 2010 Genesis P-Orridge brought Thee Majesty to support the first Chicago showing of the William S. Burroughs documentary A Man Within at St. Paul’s Community Center. In a moldering Catholic church  converted to an arts venue, a motley assortment gathered to witness Thee Majesty pour vitriol on the idea of blind acquiescence to ideology or organization.

A culture of individuals

I was surprised at how disparate the folks were in the audience. A guy dressed in a well tailored suit sits next to a man, apparently well into his 60’s, with a long, stringy white beard and a loose, rough cut, red tunic. This was a community of individuals, bound by active acceptance of each other and not a passive belief in unity.

“I have lied to you…” Genesis howls over the discordant drone of Bryin Dall’s guitar and the percussion. The sounds were acrid, melting away blind belief and calling for gnosis. To participate in this ritual was not to loose ones’ self in a hazy notion of the All, it was participation as a self-realized unit of the whole. An existential moment of responsibility that tore down the illusion of cohesion in order to place the individual into an unblinded view of their place.

Further on one discovers through the immersive atmosphere of pandrogyny, alchemical marriage and surgical remembering that Genesis evokes, individuality itself becomes a subtle lie to be shed as well. The concert becomes an exploration of the phenomenal mixing of parts expressed in other traditions through shamanic dismemberment, Chod practice, the Great Work of alchemical adepts and the amorphous therianthropic forms of the witches sabbat.

Resurrection

This experience was repeated when Michael Gira resurrected the Swans at the Double Door on October 5th. Gira in a conservative haircut, collared shirt, tore apart the distinctions between raw sound and lush harmonies. Theatrics stripped away, here was the music itself, naked and real.

They were not there to support the expectations of the audience. Our place was as guests, we were invited to accompany him into a temple built of sound, where we could experience what he wryly referred to as his “poor man’s religion.”

An end to academic rituals

The audience had assembled for a concert in the classic sense. They were expecting what the academics think of as a ritual, with the expected cultural narrative and social interaction accompanied by some fitting genre music. Cat calls from the back demanded that the audience “Fucking dance! This is a Swans concert…” despite the fact that for 30 years of performing Gira has consistently mentioned that he hates the brute  and group oriented elements of musical culture.

Gira is an advocate for the individual, with no interest in rituals like moshing that support group think. A Swans’ concert is not the place for the cheap parlour tricks of a Human Resource department, the street equivalent of trust exercises. When Gira is your host he is there to, in a very personal way, tear you open to reality.

Laying the foundation

The concert begins with the long, droning squeal of a distorted guitar. The tension builds, at first the audience stands in expectation, as time passes it becomes obvious that this sound is not an introductory element and will play for longer than most songs, the audience becomes nervous. People start to yell and cheer, needing some kind of release. They are not tantrics, the power of withholding doesn’t linger long in their mind.

Then the percussion begins, Thor Harris playing what sounds like rhythmic church bells over the continuing drone. All of this the audience interprets as showmanship, they’re missing the very simple fact that these sonic elements are serving to sever them from their daily routine, wiping their mind clean for what’s ahead. The ground is being laid for an architecture of sound in which the elemental drama will play out.

The architect

Gira’s focus, calm and fierce at the same time, Harris and Phil Puelo with alternate looks of agony and release as they hammer an impossible rhythmn. The entire band goaded on by Gira, whipped with looks and pulled forward by his own movement into the sound. If the audience was able they were welcome to come with. Even those left outside the inner chamber of the sound by their own expectations were throttled into submission.

William S. Burroughs compared Led Zeppelin to the Master Musicians of JouJouka, but they were still mired in mid 20th century Western culture. What Gira was able to summon had the immediacy of the Morrocan musicians, sound and vision cultivated from the ruins of Western culture. A ritual fit for the time, the music carrying fragments of traditional narratives torn into an elemental experience of life in the 21st century.

Genesis P-Orridge and Michael Gira are both able to capture the true ritual elements of the concert experience. Untied to tradition, religious, musical or cultural, they pull out the most effective pieces from the cultural drift and create temples of sound, opening up the reality of our times.

(Illustration: Untitled, David B. Metcalfe)

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