Eternal Brother: On His Own Time
By Mike Jinji Sunya Wood
"More than once (most impressively perhaps in the change from OM to Amen), we have found that the sound we mean is not simply a sound that becomes audible and then disappears. Sound stands for primal sound." --from Joachim-Ernst Berendt, The World Is Sound: Nada Brahma: Music and the Landscape of Consciousness.
The Woodpecker was considered the world's first drummer, in some Native North American mythologies, a drummer who helped mark time, gave daily lessons in rhythm, and, along with the other birds, guided humans forward to ritual and its engine, music. The Woodpecker's simple tone proved to be the gateway to deeper consciousness and awe.
Some say that the first music was the sound of nature, the odd and probably terrifying grunts of dark space, or maybe the familiar warning noises of dangerous local animals. Whatever the first cause, for most of human history music was both a cry to and a celebration of the experience of Spirit, whether it be the tribal cadences of vegetation rituals or seasonal changes, or the more formal tones of various religions. From the very beginning, it was the Drone, that simple, repetitive monotone which was at the heart of music and of chanted prayer. It is still with us, its eternal ability to create sacred space in any song within which it is placed still intact. Not only has it been an avenue to the holy, but according to some, the notes of its scale ARE the Sacred.
Angus MacLise, in his art, music, and spiritual life, sought the universal, the essence, the primal. Often his music was no more elaborate than the Woodpecker's sound, using drone, percussion, chant, spontaneous guitars, or guests in his lessons. His lessons were probably meant more for himself and his friends than for a wider audience. While some of his music could be heard on bootlegs and soundtracks during his short life, most of his music was recorded on tapes, made inside and outside of wherever he was living. He joined in loose informal jams with a very early Velvet Underground (he lived down the hall from Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed in the same apartment building) before their role with Andy Warhol as house band for the first multimedia performances. MacLise mostly played hand drums and bongos, sharing his understanding of drone and noise picked up in his travels, which included India and the Middle East. Unending gratitude should be given to the BooHooray label, which has unearthed a treasure trove of tapes and done perhaps more than anyone to bring MacLise back into our consciousness as musical shaman, rather than merely an obscure rock and roll footnote.
It is ironic that this attention has come long after MacLise's death; his relationship to time was always conflicted and bemused. His holy pagan approach to creativity--and a sort of worship of the Wild, is only beginning to gain recognition; his story is one of the more crucial, yet largely unknown, part of the 1960's crazy wisdom.
Many of his drones resemble the all-encompassing sound of the Sufi Gnawa, a ceremonial music and religious rite wherein spirits are invited to share the bodies of those attending, while at the same time an intimate communal rhythmic celebration. Examples of this can be heard in "Druid's Imprisoned Emerald Split Rock of Poetry" (from Dreamweapon II) and in the third tape of the Pleasure Editions series. He spent the last years of his life running a bookstore/cafe in Nepal (where his young son was recognized as a Tulku, or reincarnated lama, by local monks, who were given permission to take him to their monastery and begin his training as a lama). MacLise's Nepal tapes attest to his feel for time and tone.
Flowing easily, often in the same piece, between chant and ritual percussion to noise to Bhakti to phrases reminiscent of his friend and sometime collaborator La Monte Young: I call them pieces rather than songs because there is always the sense in MacLise's music that there is no beginning or end, that we are dropped in the middle of a continuous praising, searching work, an idea shared by Young, the idea of the Eternal Music, of life itself as unending, free sound, that draws not only from the artist, but from the environment, the mood of the listener. Yet Young's music is less meta-improvisational; with Angus MacLise, there is the sense of both the outsider, working within his own concepts of rhythm and tune, and the deep insider, offering every sound that pops into his head immediately as it does so, an embodiment of the moment as a universe unto itself, never to be repeated. During MacLise's time as a member of Young's Theater of Eternal Music, another member of the group was John Cale, with whom MacLise helped form some of the psychic foundations for the Velvet Underground. Around this time Yoko Ono and Tony Conrad (the latter a future frequent collaborator with MacLise) were working with Young, which also placed him within the orbit of the Fluxus art movement, whose chaotic conceptual approach to art certainly influenced his ideas on time as well, and probably validated his belief in time as a word for a flow that can be played with, reoriented, according to the individual will. For MacLise, time was a constraint but also a tool, an eternal tool: if today is Tuesday and right now is 10:32 PM because we in this part of the world agree that it is, why can't we name right now whatever we want? Call it something that celebrates our day, causes us to remember dead loved ones, inspire us to create, not consume.
Yet time is also PLAY.
Repetition in drone and minimalism extends the concept of time while at the same time making such concepts obsolete; through trance-inducing repetition, one can physically experience the looping, circular nature of eternal time preferred by Eastern philosophies. The somewhat counterintuitive linear concept of time favored in the West--reinforced both by the aging process (which in the West ends in death, not renewal), and by the constantly refined inner biographies we tell ourselves (creating the illusion of a life of constant forward movement)--is much more comfortable with music with defined beginnings, middles, and ends. Drone is thus both liberating and jarring, according to one's definition of and reliance on temporal time. The drone is thus reorienting as well as disorienting.
MacLise briefly played for the Velvet Underground in 1965, when Lou Reed was in the hospital, and Maclise acted on his contempt for linear time. Even this setting was too restrictive. For one thing, he seemed to resent the idea of having to show up (anywhere) at a certain time, as well as to be forced to leave at a specific time. It wasn't unusual for him to show up to those temp VU gigs very late--when he felt ready to play--and to continue playing long after the band left the stage, either until he felt his playing reached a natural conclusion, or the owner of the space booted him out.
This ethic was in some ways ironic because at this point in their career, the 1965-66 Velvets were house band for Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, happenings which included light shows, experimental films (you can find the soundtrack for Cohen's Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda) and much improvisation. The Velvets' performances were largely freeform, with imbedded jams that served to develop ideas for more structured songs that would soon appear live and on their 1967 debut LP.
In addition to his music, art, shamanic rituals, and runic asemic writing, he was also a visionary poet, and, to the degree possible, used words to create an eternal, cyclical space.
This was no more evident than in "Year," a personal calendar for which he is now becoming most known. By stripping each day of its formal name and the rigid devotion to it, he redesignated each day with an often whimsical, sometimes arcane name that invoked a sense of celebration and creation. In MacLise's calendar, originally self-published under his Dead Language Press imprint, every day was a good day, a day of awe and joy and contemplation. Young has claimed that he used MacLise's calendar in his own work, for titles, for inspiration. In addition to ultra-rare print copies, we fortunately have his "Universal Solar Calendar," in which he recites a version of "Year":
Why does the body respond to the drone in ways that comfort but also inspire to seek higher consciousness? Tribal, atavistic, trance, ritualistic, proper for sacred and profane experiences: drone can be seen as a core human experience, as well as an outlet to maintain connection with the pagan past.
Given his creative expressions, Angus MacLise would probably be a bit annoyed that those influenced by "Year" are using his daily designations rather than using the calendar as an inspiration for creating a personal one.
Greg Barrios, "Sterling Morrison Interview," originally published in Fusion #8 (March 6, 1970); reprinted in All Tomorrow's Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print, 1966-1971, edited by Clinton Heylin, Da Capo Press, 2006. http://olivier.landemaine.free.fr/vu/articles/sterl69/sterl69.html
Jim Condon, "Angus MacLise and the Origin of the Velvet Underground," What Goes On #3 (1983); reprinted with permission of M. C. Kostek in The Velvet Underground Companion: Four Decades of Commentary, edited by Albin Zak III, Schirmer Books, 1997.
Richie Unterberger, "Angus MacLise | Biography & History," AllMusic, 2015.
Also see the Angus MacLise Bandcamp page
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