Editing a conversation with Swedish mathematician/poet/composer/musician Catherine Christer Hennix down to 2,000 words is a challenge. Every topic is interconnected via a precise, dense, complex overlapping web of improvised but rigorous logic: the drone-based musics she has been making since meeting La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath in the late 1960s; her radical rethinking of the foundations of mathematics built around the Dutch mathematical genius L.E.J. Brouwer; her friendship and work with Russian dissident mathematician Alexander Sergeyevich Esenin-Volpin; her visual art—recently surveyed at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam—elaborating her ideas of “epistemic art” and “algebraic aesthetics”; her explorations of transfeminist aesthetics and practices emergent from her studies with Lacanian thinkers in Paris in the 1990s; and her deep roots in jazz and improvised music dating back to her childhood in Stockholm, where her mother ran a kind of salon through which figures like Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt passed. Add to that broad interests in contemporary quantum physics, a rich history of collaborations and friendships with people such as philosopher/musician Henry Flynt, a spiritual orientation that is increasingly focused on Sufism and Islam; it is all connected and Hennix is committed and capable or showing how! “This is a lifetime's work!” she reminds me on occasion when I'm struggling to hold it all together.
Hennix's work is newly available to the public via a series of publications from Blank Forms, including two volumes of her writings, Poësy Matters and Other Matters (2019), and a series of archival and contemporary recordings, the latest of which is a version of Stockhausen's Unbegrenzt recorded in Stockholm in 1974 with her band The Deontic Miracle. For this interview, conducted remotely from her studio in Istanbul where she currently resides, Hennix wanted to talk about music as a sonic or vibrational practice, and the ways that in the coronavirus-related lockdown, the enforced stasis that we face could become the site of new kinds of discovery and recognition.
Marcus Boon (Rail): You've always insisted that your interest in drone music was about a lot more than “sustained tones.” Can you explain: this is not about a performance even, the focus of making music is somewhere entirely different…
Catherine Christer Hennix: Yeah, the idea is that you have this drone that is a constant choice, an invariant that is always on, and that is itself actually a composition. What the musicians do is enlarge some of the partials, the harmonics in the drone that otherwise you would not have been able to hear. Performing with it, we highlight one harmonic after another in the sound that is already being played, as constant reference, see? So the whole composition we play is already partially compacted into the drone. The drone is playing all its harmonics at the same time, but we choose a few of them and play them together and then we take another set of harmonics and play them and so on and in the end we have exhausted all of the harmonics.
But that is just one cycle. So then you start another cycle where you do the same thing but not in the same order. So everything is fresh all the time when you hear it, nothing is being repeated although it may sound monotonous to the untrained ear. The idea is that although this is a very small set of permutations, they have an indefinite number of realizations and so what you hear is already new. But also as a listener it works both ways. If a listener is just listening to the drone with no musicians present, eventually because of the plasticity of your brain you will start to hear it differently, you will start to hear more harmonics than you heard the first hour. Well, that means you have changed. Now you hear more than before. Just by yourself. Just by being patient and getting inside the sound. I felt that was the most extraordinary thing about this music, that it actually changed you from the inside in a miraculous way. You start to hear things that at first you didn't hear. I thought that was spectacular.
Rail: So it's truly psychotropic in the sense that a mental transformation is happening in relation to the sound.
Hennix: Yeah and this happens even more to the musicians, they are transformed continuously in a most psychotropic way. That's why my musicians like to play this music as opposed to other stuff they have to do to make money. So this is a win-win situation for everyone involved and you'd think this has a future for it. But there was no future for it. Many people just got totally upset about it, in particular all the people that belonged to institutions.
Rail: Do you think that's because there's a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of music in a society? You're not really talking about performance in the sense of exterior entertainment. The sound transforms your mind when it's exposed to it whether musician or audience, so there's a collective sonic psychotropism there.
Hennix: Yeah to take a very obvious example, if you've been to a live John Coltrane performance for two or three hours, you're not the same person: that's the power of his sound. That's how I felt about La Monte or Henry [Flynt], not to speak of Pandit Pran Nath which was overwhelming. But to be able to transform the listener so radically that when you walk out of the concert all you want is to hear more so that when you walk out you feel like you've been purified in some way.
Rail: And therefore you want to repeat that and there should be situations where this is accessible to people 24/7—
Hennix: That is the natural idea in this context. Although you may listen to the same sound, you change after each session, so therefore it's actually a new sound. Although physically it's the same, your participation as a listener changes you and therefore the sound also changes. It's very magical. There is no explanation for it…
Rail: But where would you start?
Hennix: I would start with the consideration of the way our sensorial mechanism is architectured [sic]. In particular, I think the quantum processes involved in perception should be taken much more seriously than they have so far. You may have heard me talk about physiological Bose-Einstein condensate. You have what is called a phase transition. In other words, the whole sensorial mechanism shifts gears and when you feel totally overwhelmed that means there is just one point of focus, right?
Rail: There's an intensity of affect that has a neuro-psychophysiological correlate…
Hennix: These things…are all of the same. If you listen to the same sound all the time, the accumulation of this sameness results in a condensation process in your mind. Everything condenses to one big point that dominates everything else. It arrests your whole being so that you cannot think about anything else. It's the one point in meditation. But here it comes with a lot of emotions at the same time. Meditation is so much like praying in terms of emotional investment. Raga performances, at least as Guruji did them, are definitely a form of prayer.
Rail: That idea of a phase transition really applies to raga performances where there's this ecstatic bubble that you enter into within the sound of the raga and there's a very intense sense of vibrational feeling. And when the raga ends it's like the bubble pops. Maybe there's some kind of topological shift and when the raga ends, that topology kind of bends back into its previous shape.
Hennix: There is actually something called topological matter involving strongly correlated electrons. This is very fancy physics actually which you do at the quantum level, which is what happens physiologically. Our cellular matter is so densely packed that the cell membranes are in contact with each other with all the chemicals, hormones, and enzymes that are floating around. Water is a dielectric to begin with. Without water you can't have any of these structures. Proteins are continuously folding and unfolding themselves, it's a beautiful process when you simulate it in a computer. There are billions of these processes going on simultaneously. And sound plays a part in coordinating all these quantum movements. Everything is vibrating also in the body. When a protein is folding and unfolding it does this at a particular frequency. It's like a pendulum. A Bose-Einstein condensate is when all of this takes on the same standing wave harmonic pattern, everything lines up in one single chunk, zillions of things become one thing, you see?
Rail: How do you describe the activity of a musician ideally: is it research, a religious activity?
Hennix: You need to be involved with more than one field at a time. It's a little bit like Lacanian analysis: you have to take a whole bunch of stuff into account, ethics being an important component. When I wrote the program notes for Brouwer's Lattice (1976) I made a pronouncement about how to measure the ethics of the society in terms of how long a composition could be performed without the institution telling you to go home. When I suggested that you could have something like a sound shrine, I just felt there was enough real estate in Stockholm that the city could give a building or two to people who wanted to do this. Free of charge, and paying for the maintenance and other things that go into it. There were so many people bored to death because the structure of society didn't provide for interesting work. So here was a way for people to spend time working, but at the same time meditating, coming to know themselves better and realizing the world is not the way that other people had told them. There is another invisible world that has qualities that were never explored systematically and deeply before because people needed to make money all the time.
Rail: What you're talking about sounds like the Bataillean idea of the surplus and that a society reveals its values by how it spends the surplus.
Hennix: Right. This was not a frivolous idea to have people devoted to sound that would tune minds in a way that could further a just society. First you need to have an ethics in order to have justice, and here was a form of sound therapy that tuned you to an ethics that would give insights into how justice should be distributed. So this is what I mean when I say that aesthetics should coincide with ethics: they are two sides of the same coin. Aesthetics is a preference relation, I prefer this to that right? I prefer La Monte Young to Beethoven, say. The other side of this is your conduct as you go about realizing your preferences—your conduct as a listener at a La Monte Young concert is more involved than during a Beethoven concert. The Beethoven concert has a fixed beginning and end, and a La Monte Young concert used to have no fixed beginning or end. By the way, Erik Satie made this piece, Vexations (1893), consisting of a single phrase repeated 840 times and that takes about 24 hours to perform if I remember correctly. Here you have the first such piece that demands that a venue has to be open 24 hours. And if you dedicate that venue to just this piece you would have a whole bunch of piano players coming and playing it. So you have a house dedicated to that piece, and this is a place where you can go and chill out if you happen to like that place and composition. And it's always there…someone is there playing it and you can go any time you feel like it. That is the point, you don't have to be there at eight and go home at ten. You can be there at any time and go home at any time.
This makes the composition more intimate in that seldom or never is it sold out so that just a few people at a time would attend. That would be the optimum also for a sound shrine or music room for my work, which I feel suffers when the venue is sold out. If instead the venue is able to offer many consecutive performances both the musicians and the audience are given space to grow in it. In addition, such a setup makes recordings superfluous since this type of music does not lend itself to electronic reproduction. This is obviously not intended as a business model. However nor is it totally utopian—BLACK HOLE in LA, run and curated by Micah Silver, will have an installation of my composition Soliton(e) Star running through the fall.
(This is part one of a two-part interview)