Tag Archives: Michael Gira

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.


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)

Subtle Sounds

There’s a subtle power to sound, it goes straight to the brain and a skilled musician can motivate visions, emotions and even physical responses in their listeners. Alan Lomax’s book, The Land Where the Blues Began, has a great description of how the old blues players would work the crowd with their songs. By choosing music that fit what they needed, they’d get the audience into a rhythm and watch how they reacted to the music, when the time was right they’d sing lyrics that expressed what they wanted from the crowd, if it was money they’d sing about getting money, if it was food or drink they’d do the same, if they wanted someone to take home after the show, well it was just a matter of choosing the right song.

Speculative Exomusicology

While doing research for an Alarm Magazine article on “Audible Color” I had the opportunity to speak with Professor William Sethares of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Sethares studies acoustical engineering and has spent a number of years looking at how sound is interpreted by the listener.

One of the interesting things to come out of this study is his idea of speculative exomusicology, a thought experiment that looks to recreate music from outside the Earth. This concept helps Sethares  move past traditional boundaries of musical structure and allows him free reign to play with the mathematical underpinnings of tone, harmony and timbre themselves.

Immediately I think of Sun Ra and his Afro-Futurist explorations of Egyptian magic, idealized Africa and the Celestial Spaces. Talking to Sethares was an opportunity to better understand  the ability to build structures and landscapes with sound and to open up new spaces through music.

Landscapes of Sound

Looking at the Swans upcoming album the same can be applied to what Michael Gira has been doing. The vocals seem to drift in this landscape of sound. He looks at sound in a very physical way, and builds up layers of aural expression as one might layer stone on stone to build a wall. If you go back through the Swans catalog you can hear this interesting development of visceral sound experimentation. In his solo work, and his work with The Angels of Light, he was able to really explore the art of song-craft. On My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to Heaven he brings it all together with powerful results.

Jhonn Balance and Peter Christopherson of Coil used their idea of sidereal sounds to build transcelestial landscapes with their music, Medieval polyphony excites  images of harmony and utopian ideals, and singers like Rene Zosso bring alive the Troubadours’ highly visual music. The more I think about it, the more I start seeing the same in most artists who have truly mastered their medium. This is especially true when you look at traditional music from around the world.

Knowledge of sound’s ability to build images in the mind, and create landscapes that one can travel through, seems to only be missing in the lowest forms of pop music. Most serious musicians are adept at utilizing this, spiritual movements have taken advantage of this power to bring glimpses of  theophanic visions to the believer, and national movements have built idealized dreams of their nation-states on songs.


An hour or so on the phone with Professor Sethares and my mind was racing with the possibilities. Even in the visual arts the same mastery of the medium is possible. Austin Osman Spare was able to achieve this effect with his subtle use of color and ephemeral line work.  Talented writers and poets do it with words. Ezra Pound’s poem Sestina Altaforte has a good example of the recognition of this process, with Pound declaring at the beginnig:

En Bertans de Born. Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife. Eccovi! Judge ye! Have I dug him up again?

Here we have Pound pointing to the power of words to resurrect the dead. The duration of the reanimation would seem dependent on the artists ability to create a lasting work to carry the intention.


Integrating Sound and Image

Another enlightening exchange that came from the research was an email interview with Bryan Michael of Alka. He discussed the interplay between sound and image, and the process of integrating the two during a performance.

According to Bryan “the idea of both the visual and musical elements being conceived at the same time seems important. The trick is finding someone that can interpret and translate the tones into viewable elements without them being typical screenplay-style interpretations of the emotions evoked.” Having experienced this myself  during the production process and  live exhibits of A Serious Inquiry into the Vulgar Notion of Nature it was very helpful to hear how he tackled the ups and downs of the process.

alka :: i am a wreck live @ GATE in Philadelphia

This combination provides an interesting area of investigation. Sound itself is capable of so much, combined with visual elements of the same caliber and you get something like Stravinsky and Roerich’s presentation of the Rite of Spring. How can we translate this in contemporary terms?

Learning more about Brian’s interest in Gematria and Pythagorean musical ideas also opened up areas that I wasn’t very familiar with. “The idea of reducing words and incantations to their numerical equivalency and plugging the data into sequencers for audible results” is something that he is working with more. It seems like an idea that has a number of applications across the artistic spectrum, and closely tied to the same techniques that allowed the old blues players to be so effective.

Planetshifter Magazine was kind enough to host the full interview with Bryan, so check it out and learn more about Sound and Incantation – Digital Art as Alchemy.

Broke Incantation

And on an end note – here’s my own Broke Incantation, the latest bit of dabbling I’ve done while experimenting with awkward home recordings:

Any word?

It’s very humbling to see  the amount of creativity that exists, flowing through a world that so often seems cold as a coin. I was fortunate enough to speak with Michael Gira  recently for an article I’m writing for Alarm Magazine about the Swans’ new album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, and in the course of an hour experienced a better understanding of the creative process than I could have previously conceived.

A week or two was spent in preparation for the conversation; I delved deeply into Michael’s previous recordings, tried to gain a sense for where he was coming from with his music and where he was going with his recent efforts. In the process I became overwhelmed by a sense of possibilities and a realization of the potential power behind something as simple as a sustained chord.

Beyond artistry, I saw a man who has mastered the freedom of our hyper-connected age. Running his own label has given him the chance to raise the act of simple home recording into an art form. In order to fund this new Swans album he created a limited edition album, I Am Not Insane,  in hand printed packaging. Here is a veteran of the music industry getting his hands dirty and showing the rest of us how it’s done.

I Am Not Insane was recorded in his office! Imagine if every business owner had the passion to pick up an instrument on their lunch break, or even rip out an acapella tune, and start pressing their own CDs. The drawing at the top of this entry was made with soy sauce and india ink, so even if lunch time didn’t bring out a song there’s still no excuse for not getting busy with some creative endeavors. No need for expensive tools, they give you enough with your take out order to get started.

Zac Odinn’s recent spoken word experiments and his collaboration with Jeremy (mthing), along with my brief conversation with Michael Gira, got me excited enough to start fiddling around with sound myself. While at the grocery store last night I picked up an $8 computer mic, and when I got home threw together a quick little 2 track instrumental improv I’ve titled ‘Any Word?’ in honor of my long time friend, and creative partner, Terry Hahin‘s recent move to the Phillipines.

Hope you enjoy it, and more I hope you go out and grab the opportunities that are all around us to create and bring some light to our confused world…